Commentators all over the spectrum have recognized antitrust is increasingly becoming a game of political football.
The notion that antitrust enforcement is motivated by politics has hung over the Trump administration since the Department of Justice’s failed attempt to block AT&T’s acquisition of CNN’s owner, Time Warner and some antitrust experts might point out that the Obama administration also influenced the DOJ’s decisions to sue or settle cases.
While politics has always played a role in setting the antitrust agenda, typically antitrust investigations and enforcement decisions are based on the facts. Indeed, there is no credible evidence that the big tech firms have engaged in unlawful monopolization or that they have stifled innovation. In fact, Iowa’s Attorney General Tom Miller, who is well known for his role of leading 20 states in the DOJ’s antitrust suit against Microsoft, said this past July that “[w]e are struggling with the law and the theory,” to bring a case against the big tech firms.
But, this didn’t stop the state AGs from entering the fray. Republicans are concerned that the tech platforms have suppressed conservative viewpoints, Democrats are worried that these tech companies are simply too big and powerful. But the announcements of the state AG investigations into Google and Facebook have two things in common: a lack of substance as they can point to no consumer harm and publicity to tout their efforts.
The latest announcement of the state AGs’ investigation of Google – from the steps of the Supreme Court no less – demonstrates just how political antitrust enforcement is becoming. This type of high-profile activism may benefit state AGs’ political aspirations, but it could impose enormous costs on consumers. Indeed, the mere threat of numerous investigations could have a chilling effect on innovation and competition for as long as these probes last.
Some state AGs appear to be conflating antitrust and other politically popular pet causes, raising the specter of using antitrust enforcement for political gain. On the same day of his announcement of the Google investigation, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a fundraising request in an email to his supporters touting his efforts to take on “Silicon Valley titans.” And, according to a copy of the email shared with POLITICO, Paxton asserts “Texans are put at risk” by Google because of the company’s market dominance and privacy practices, and because its “executives clearly display anti-conservative and anti-Republican bias, subtly controlling what Americans see when they search for information about national political issues.” But political concerns have no place in an antitrust investigation and using antitrust investigations to punish speech raises profound First Amendment concerns.
As the federal antitrust authorities and the state AGs begin their investigations, they must be mindful that companies like Google and Facebook have delivered a tremendous amount of innovation enabling the launch of new products and services that have resulted in many benefits to consumers such as free online search, email, messaging, and artificial intelligence services all while competing in a highly competitive advertising market with the likes of AT&T, Disney, CBS, and Comcast/NBCU. These multichannel competitors have been locked in the stone age for years, are now finally innovating to compete against the new digital advertising entrants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
In addition to competing with the large entertainment companies for users’ eyeballs and time, Google fiercely competes with Facebook, Amazon, and Apple in various ways, including the development and launch of new products and services such as digital assistant devices, internet of things platforms, and virtual reality products, providing consumers with an abundance of choices and convenience. In short, the big tech platforms are not successful because they are big and powerful – they are big and powerful because they have been successful. And that success stems from the nature of a free market economy that provides incentives of firms to innovate and grow.
Without question, this type of efficiency and competition should be preserved. What’s more, utilizing antitrust enforcement as a political tool is a threat to the rule of law. Antitrust enforcement should not be turned into a political enterprise to police unrelated, and unsubstantiated, “harms” based on subjective moral and social judgments. Instead, it must continue to be primarily based on sound theories, objective economic criteria, and evidence of consumer harm. For years, enforcement decisions were based on the consumer welfare standard – not on populist standards that change with the political winds.
Remember the antitrust laws are focused on consumers and whether any company is disadvantaged by Google’s business practices is not at issue – the central issue to a court will be, do consumers pay more. And although there may be pockets of disgruntled rivals, there is little to no evidence that consumers have paid more because of the way that Google conducts its business.