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Antitrust

Antitrust Experts Zero In on Big Tech and Consumer Welfare Standard at Aspen Forum

At Aspen forum, a red-hot focus on Big Tech, antitrust and consumer welfare.

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Photo of the antitrust panel at TPI's Aspen Forum by Ben Kahn

ASPEN, Colorado, August 17, 2021— The Biden administration is taking a much harder line against big technology companies than was done by previous presidents, and is doing so by looking beyond the traditional consumer welfare standard of antitrust economics.

But the antitrust and competition economists making these assessments at the Technology Policy Institute conference here on Monday disagreed sharply about whether antitrust law should move beyond that consumer welfare standard.

Some these experts – including sitting Federal Trade Commissioner Noah Phillips – disagreed with stances taken by Biden’s hand-picked FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan.

Others, including Harvard Business School Professor Shane Greenstein, said that it was absolutely necessary for the FTC and the Justice Department antitrust division to investigate the gargantuan sums of money exchanged between big tech titans Google and Apple.

Speaking on a spirited panel session in the morning, “How is the U.S. Reshaping Antitrust,” Greenstein said Google pays Apple approximately $8 billion a year to make the Google search engine the default internet browser on all Apple devices.

Though this may not have historically fallen under the purview of antitrust, Greenstein was accusatory in his evaluation of the situation: “I’m sorry, no.” As to whether the antitrust division should investigate the matter, he said, “Go for it, guys.”

For a session on “Antitrust, the Consumer Welfare Standard and Big Tech Platforms,” see Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Wednesday, February 24, 2021. 

‘Deconcentration’ is not the goal of antitrust policy

But Carl Shapiro, professor of business strategy emeritus at University of California at Berkeley, dissented from Greenstein’s broader antitrust perspective.

“The goals of antitrust should be to promote competition—full stop,” said Shapiro. Deconcentration is not the goal of the FTC. The agency will have to determine whether it would depart from this long-held view, he said, and decide whether it would opt instead to consider concentration itself as evil.

“That’s not a version of capitalism that I want,” said Shapiro.

The primary issue is how one chooses to define competition, said Howard Shelanski, professor of law at Georgetown University. The dominant perspective has viewed competition through the lens of price effects. Other schools of thought borrow a wider aperture, considering this like privacy, wealth distribution, political power, product quality, and product variety when determining whether something improves or diminishes competition.

The more metrics that are accounted for, the more issues present themselves.

To this, FTC Commissioner Phillips responded, “If you are trying to solve everything at once, you will solve nothing at all.”

While polite, Phillips disagreed with FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan

At the beginning of the panel discussion, TPI President Emeritus Tom Lenard opened the session by asking Phillips for his impression of Khan.

Phillips responded diplomatically, joking that this question had not been on the list he had been sent. Because Khan has only been on the job for two months, it is too early for him to give a fully fleshed out appraisal of her time as chairwoman. “It’s always exciting to get new blood,” he said.

While he said he was supportive of Khan’s efforts to improve transparency by holding public meetings, he was critical of the direction in which the FTC is heading.

Proposed rule changes would create “needless friction” by delaying mergers that do not present a danger to consumers. This will make the agency less effective and less efficient.

“I worry that we are needlessly impeding our ability” to hear cases, he said.

Successes by big tech firms are ‘not a failure of antitrust’

Shapiro added that, in his view, concentration within an industry should not be viewed as a negative thing and that it is merely indicative of the fact that bigger companies are often simply more efficient and can compete more effectively in their industry. “That is not a failure of antitrust,” he said.

Shelanski said that he harbored serious reservations about expanding the consideration of antitrust. He noted that as it stands now, it is basically left to the FTC to decide how to pursue antitrust cases.

If the agency were to include considerations of value judgments, public health, environmentalism and wealth distribution, the country would need stronger democratic institutions to pursue this approach.

Former FTC Acting Chairwoman Maureen Ohlhausen, now with Baker Botts’s Antitrust and Competition Law Practice Group, shared Shelanski’s concerns about the ability of the FTC to make big, sweeping considerations on its own.

The public should not view the careful and deliberate approach to FTC decisions as lax. Indeed, she said, the commission has “done a pretty good job.”

Phillips agreed, stating that under the Trump Administration, the FTC had blocked more than 20 mergers—the most since 2001.

When asked if he felt whether antitrust guidelines should be revisited, he responded with skepticism, “There is a lot of promise of revisitation without much discussion of where [the FTC] is going.”

Antitrust

‘Time is Now’ for Separate Big Tech Regulatory Agency, Public Interest Group Says

‘We need to recognize that absolutely the time is now. It is neither too soon nor too late.’

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Photo of Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2022 – Public Knowledge, non-profit public interest group, further advocated Thursday support for the Digital Platform Commission Act introduced in the Senate in May that would create a new federal agency designed to regulate digital platforms on an ongoing basis.

“We need to recognize that absolutely the time is now. It is neither too soon nor too late,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

The DPCA, introduced by Senator Michael Bennet, D-CO., and Representative Peter Welch, D-VT., would, if adopted, create a new federal agency designed to “provide comprehensive, sector-specific regulation of digital platforms to protect consumers, promote competition, and defend the public interest.”

The independent body would conduct hearings, research and investigations all while promoting competition and establishing rules with appropriate penalties.

Public Knowledge primarily focuses on competition in the digital marketplace. It champions for open internet and has openly advocated for antitrust legislation that would limit Big Tech action in favor of fair competition in the digital marketspace.

Feld published a book in 2019 titled, “The Case for the Digital Platform Act: Breakups, Starfish Problems and Tech Regulation.” In it, Feld explains the need for a separate government agency to regulate digital platforms.

Digital regulation is new but has rapidly become critical to the economy, continued Feld. As such, it is necessary for the government to create a completely new agency in order to provide the proper oversight.

In the past, Congress empowered independent bodies with effective tools and expert teams when it lacked expertise to oversee complex sectors of the economy but there is no such body for digital platforms, said Feld.

“The reality is that [Congress] can’t keep up,” said Welch. This comes at a time when antitrust action continues to pile up in Congress, sparking debate across all sides of the issue.

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Antitrust

FTC Commissioner Concerned About Antitrust Impact on Already Rising Consumer Prices

Noah Phillips said Tuesday he wants the commission to think about the impact of antitrust rules on rising prices.

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Screenshot of Federal Trade Commissioner Noah Phillips

WASHINGTON, May 17, 2022 – Rising inflation should be a primary concern for the Federal Trade Commission when considering antitrust regulations on Big Tech, said Commissioner Noah Phillips Tuesday.

When considering laws, “the important thing is what impact it has on the consumer,” said Phillips. “We need to continue to guard like a hawk against conduct and against laws that have the effect of raising prices for consumers.”

Current record highs in the inflation rate, which means money is becoming less valuable as products become more expensive, has meant Washington must become sensitive to further price increases that could come out of such antitrust legislation, the commissioner said.

Phillips did not comment on how such movies would mean higher prices, but that signals, such as theHouse Judiciary Committee’s antitrust report two years ago, that reign in Big Tech companies and bring back enforcement of laws could mean higher prices. He raised concerns that recent policies are prohibiting competition rather than facilitating it.

This follows recent concerns that the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, currently awaiting Senate floor consideration, will inhibit America’s global competitiveness by weakening major American companies, thus impairing the American economy. That legislation would prohibit platform owners from giving preference to their products against third-party products.

This act is one of many currently under consideration at Congress, including Ending Platform Monopolies Act and Platform Competition and Opportunity Act.

Small businesses have worried that by enacting some legislation targeting Big Tech, they would be impacted because they rely on such platforms for success.

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Antitrust

Critics and Supporters Trade Views on American Innovation and Choice Online Act

American Innovation and Choice Online Act is intended to protect fair competition among businesses, but panelists differed on its impact.

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Photo of Amy Klobuchar from August 2019 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2022 – Experts differed on the effect that antitrust legislation targeting big tech companies allegedly engaging in discriminatory behavior would have on small businesses.

Small businesses “want Congress not to do anything that will screw up or weaken the services that they rely on for their business,” said Michael Petricone, senior vice present of the Consumer Technology Association, at a Protocol Live event on Thursday.

Petricone said that antitrust bill would encourage tech companies to relocate to other countries, harming the American economy. He said small businesses would be affected the most.

Instead, Petricone called for  a “smarter immigration policy” to allow foreign innovators access to American tech market, as well as the defeat of the antitrust legislation.

But other said that small businesses suffer from predatory behavior by big tech companies. “Companies can’t get their foot in the door when there is already self-preferencing,” said Awesta Sarkash, representative for Small Business Majority, an advocacy organization, adding that 80% of small businesses say they want antitrust laws to protect them.

Self-preferencing on online platforms is detrimental to the success of small businesses who rely on social media advertising for business, she said. The new antitrust proposals would ensure an level playing field and promote fair competition, she said.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act would prohibit certain online platforms from unfairly preferencing products, limiting another business’ ability to operate on a platform, or discriminating against competing products and services.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, was introduced to the Senate on May 2 and is awaiting Senate floor consideration.

The debate follows concerns raised by both democrats and republicans about America’s global competitiveness as the bill would weaken major American companies.

If passed, the bill will follow the European Union’s Digital Services Act which similarly sets accountability standards for online platforms, preventing potentially harmful content and behavior.

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