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Understanding the Antitrust Landscape

Dispatches from our founder
This Week
Hello, friends,
Fall is in the air. And that means we are starting to think about Big Tech and monopoly power. 
The New York Times reported this week that the U.S. Department of Justice plans to file an antitrust case against Google in the coming weeks. State attorneys general across the U.S. are also reportedly preparing antitrust cases against Facebook and Google. And the U.S. House of Representatives’ antitrust subcommittee is expected to release a report this fall examining whether new laws are needed to rein in Big Tech.
To understand the antitrust landscape, I interviewed longtime anti-monopoly activist Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, this week on a Twitch livestream. Lynn has been writing and speaking about the perils of consolidating corporate power for decades. 
He is author of “Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction” (Wiley 2010), “End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation” (Doubleday 2005), and the forthcoming book “Liberty from All Masters: The New American Autocracy vs. the Will of the People,” which will be released later this month.
It was a wide-ranging conversation and included a hilarious moment where my makeshift cardboard room divider fell on my head! Oh, the joys of working from home. (Watch the whole thing here).
Here are some edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation:
Barry Lynn
Barry Lynn
Angwin: Why [should antitrust] matter to the average person? 
Lynn: When you say the word antitrust or anti-monopoly, or you talk about the tech monopolist or the platform monopolist, it sounds very technical.
What we’re really talking about here is democracy. Do we have freedom of expression? Is the press free? When we talk about antitrust and monopoly and Big Tech, they’ve consolidated control over most of the internet at this point. And they use their power in ways that threatened our democracy. They threatened the free flow of information.
They threaten your ability to speak your mind. They threaten the ability of journalists to do their work and editors to do their work and publishers to publish the news. They manipulate information flows in this country between our leaders, our representatives and us.
When it comes to Amazon, Amazon is manipulating how people do business, who gets to do business with whom. 
It’s up to the masters of the realms in which we live to decide who gets to do what with whom. 
Angwin: A classic example of that is, Facebook announced that they’re going to do this sort of weird thing a few days before the election. You won’t be able to place new political advertising on Facebook.
There are a lot of countries where the government has rules, there’s a quiet period before the election where people can’t make statements, the press can’t write about it. But Facebook is making this rule, acting as a government.
There’s no way, as citizens, for us to debate this. People do try to lobby Facebook and yell about things all the time, but ultimately there’s been just so much evidence that really, this is a one-man decider organization, Mark Zuckerberg and whatever he decides.
Lynn: It’s true around the world. If we actually don’t get our hands around these corporations, what we’re facing here today is the end of our democracy.
The good news is that right now, after being asleep for really 30 years in this country, we’re awakening and we’re awakening fast. It’s like someone just threw a bucket of ice water on our head, and we’re popped awake and we’re confused and we’re scared, but we are awake. 
Angwin: There’s more and more people who are working in the gig economy, which is really enabled by Big Tech. People who work for the algorithm. They do the work. They have no idea how much they’re gonna get paid. They can’t bargain for it. It is framed often as a labor issue, but it also feels like it’s an issue around monopoly.
Lynn: The corporation controls all the information. You’ve destroyed the ability of workers or of any sort of independent citizens to come together and share information and work together. If everyone’s getting paid differently or treated differently, getting different information on their screens, then it makes it impossible to come together in community.
Angwin: A lot of people talk about breaking up the Big Tech companies, Google and Facebook in particular. Do you think that is a good possible solution?
Lynn: It’s not the only solution. The first thing you have to do is reestablish rule of law. Thou shall not extort the citizen. Once you’ve achieved thou shalt not manipulate and extort and lie to the citizen, then we move on to stage 2, which is what should the structure of the political economy be?
No vertical integration. 
Google has certain services that they sort of preference over the services of outsiders. Amazon has certain products that they will try and sell you before they’ll let you see the product of someone else.
Traditionally in our country, and actually many countries around the world, we said, If you are a network monopoly, you shall not be in any other business other than running the network. If you run a railroad, you are not going to be in the business of mining stone. You’re not going to be in the business of running banks. 
So one of the first things we have to do with breakup, is separate Amazon from any businesses that it controls other than the platform. Ditto with Google. In the case of Google, there’s search and there’s Android and there’s Chrome and there’s mapping and there’s YouTube and there’s Gmail. And then there’s all kinds of ad tech monopolies. What we have is actually a sort of a whole bunch of monopoly platforms, all bound together, woven into a rope of power.
We’re going to have to separate out these different strands. There’s really no reason for Gmail to be connected to YouTube. There’s no reason for YouTube to be connected to Google Maps. If we did it with AT&T in 1913, we can do it with Google in 2021.
Angwin: So if there was a Biden administration, do you expect them to be aggressive on antitrust? 
Lynn: I expect that the Biden administration will be pretty good on this. Even if they wanted to restore the Obama approach to Silicon Valley, which was, open the door of the White House and let folks come in as often as they want and tell you what to do, they will find themselves up against Congressman [David] Cicilline [of Rhode Island] and his entire [antitrust sub]committee.
So I don’t think that a Biden Administration intends to fight all of those people just because they want to help out Big Tech. I think they’re just going to say, let’s just listen to the people and fix this once and for all and move on to the important things that we have to do. 
Angwin: I don’t want to leave the Trump administration out. 
Lynn: If they’re reelected, I assume that that’s going to basically continue that they will not have the wherewithal to really deal with it. If that comes to pass, I would really hope that they hire the people they need to address this problem, because it’s not good for Republicans.
It’s not good for Democrats. It’s not good for Americans. Not good for the world. 
As always, thanks for reading!
Julia Angwin 
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