The US House of Representatives’ investigation into digital platforms has opened Americans’ eyes to the widespread harms that flow from the illegal monopolization of these markets. Yet we have been under monopoly rule for so long that we’re suffering from a crisis of imagination. So let’s take a moment to envision the possibilities of what America could be.
Editor’s note: The following is based on oral testimony given before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee on October 1, 2020.
Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google started on their paths to dominance with innovation, but the investigation into digital markets by the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee has uncovered major evidence that the platforms have used anti-competitive conduct and acquisitions to grow and maintain their monopoly power. They’ve violated the antitrust laws as they now stand.
The investigation has opened Americans’ eyes to the widespread harms that flow from the illegal monopolization of digital markets. Yet there’s one thing that most Americans still can’t see: what our lives, economy, and country could look like if these markets were open and competitive. We’ve been under monopoly rule for so long that we’re suffering from a crisis of imagination.
So let’s take a moment and envision the possibilities of what America could be: I see an America where anyone can pursue an innovative business idea, get it funded, and build a company that doesn’t get crushed by giants protecting their turf. Diverse ideas and founders flourish. Small and big companies can decline platforms’ extractive terms of dealing, stop paying them taxes and tolls, reap the rewards of their ingenuity, and pay their employees more.
Strong antitrust enforcement creates new waves of innovation, like when the government broke up AT&T, and when US v. Microsoft paved the way for Google to exist by stopping Microsoft from taking over every market that touched its monopoly.
I see an America where creators of all types—from musicians to journalists—enjoy the fruits of their labors, no longer siphoned off by Big Tech.
I see an America where no company has concentrated control over speech. Public discourse flows freely, not subject to business models that boost divisive and incendiary content. Where we all see the same speech and can respond to it with counterspeech, as the First Amendment requires.
This vision of America can be ours, if we defeat the robber barons of today—just like we’ve done before, using the antitrust laws.
Some say antitrust isn’t the right solution, and some other fix is the answer. But we are in a crisis. This isn’t an either/or situation—it’s a both/and situation. We must attack monopoly rule from every angle. For example, we also need privacy laws. But regulation doesn’t work when monopolists are too powerful to comply, or when monopolists shape the laws themselves.
Others say antitrust is being weaponized for improper purposes. But Sen. Sherman always intended to save America from kings of commerce. And if we open up markets by ending platforms’ anti-competitive tactics and deals, a wide range of benefits will follow. Enforcing the antitrust laws won’t magically solve all of our problems, but we won’t be able to cure America’s ills if we don’t first disperse monopolies’ concentrated power by unlocking competition.
Of course, the tech giants each provide useful services, but providing some benefits does not give them a free pass to break the antitrust laws. Unfortunately, our laws have been attacked by the courts for decades, making enforcement expensive and hard. Even so, enforcers need to bring more cases and be more willing to risk losing in court.
Ultimately, we are depending on Congress to fix this. Congress should use bright line rules and presumptions to remove complexity and make antitrust cases easier, faster, and cheaper. Congress should overrule legal precedent that imposes obstacles for monopolization and merger cases.
Congress should also structurally eliminate the platforms’ conflicts of interest and remove their incentives and abilities to self-preference. It should separate platforms from commerce and divest business lines. The US has used structural separation as a standard regulatory tool and antitrust remedy in networked industries.
Congress should require the platforms to offer equal access on equal terms to all, protecting citizens as sellers of goods and services, as consumers, and as speakers. Lawmakers should open up competition through interoperability. And in order to preserve our elections, Congress should immediately ban the surveillance-based hypertargeting of content. Advertising should be done based on context, not identity.
This is a turning point for our nation. Our democracy is hanging in the balance. The time to act is now—decisively, and with courage. But in order for our elected representatives to stand up to monopoly power, they need the American people behind them. The tech giants have endless lobbying funds, but we the people can once again rise up and prevail against monopolists.