Is it too late to bust up Big Tech?

Of course not. Government has ways of dealing with monopolistic behavior, especially when that power has been gained by competition-destroying acquisitions and predatory pricing behavior. Any executive branch that truly desired to break up global monopolies would have plenty of legal options available to them.

So what are they? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. I tried to Google it but just kept getting travel prices from Google’s recently purchased ticket-pricing agency. [rimshot] However, the Washington Post’s Rachel Lerman seems convinced that the moment is nigh for Google, and perhaps the other tech giants as well. That is, if it isn’t too late already:

Google critics and rivals have long warned the search engine is threatening countless industries from shopping to travel by consistently pointing people to its own products and services on the biggest search platform on the Web. And those competing against Google to win over consumers say that the search engine forces them to pay their biggest rival in advertising dollars just to show up.

Google’s dominance in search has drawn more regulatory scrutiny and criticism from rivals and lawmakers in recent months, something that is expected to culminate in the Department of Justice filing an antitrust suit against the company in the coming weeks. Lawmakers are also preparing new legislation to rein in tech’s power, following the publication last week of a congressional investigation that found Google engaged in anticompetitive tactics.

The case by the Justice Department would be its biggest swing yet to rein in the power of tech giants in decades, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But some who warned the government a decade ago say it may be too late.

Google “is a monopoly, without question,” Barry Diller, chairman of Expedia and IAC, said in an interview. Google has been great for consumers, Diller said, but it increasingly restricts competitors by making it more expensive to compete in online advertising. Expedia and IAC sites are pushed down the page in favor of Google’s own services, he said.

“Google is essentially competing with our services while taking our money,” he said. “I don’t want the person I’m spending billions of dollars with to compete directly against me.”

To be fair, government policy on anti-trust enforcement has been lax for a lot more than ten years, and in more areas than just Big Tech. Consolidation has gripped several industries, including at least one with national-security implications — the defense/aerospace arena. It’s also true in entertainment, where Disney, Comcast, and Sony control a vast majority if not almost the entirety of production and distribution decisions. Banking and finance had already consolidated significantly before the 2008 financial crash, and became even more consolidated afterwards.

The problems with massive consolidation should have been obvious at that point in time, for conservatives and liberals alike. It was that massive consolidation that led to “too big to fail” arguments for entities that engaged in reckless behavior. Instead of having financial stability based on a multitude of smaller firms, that recklessness resulted in damage so deep that it required government intervention to prevent an outright collapse (and was predicated on government intervention in lending markets to incentivize that riskier behavior in the first place).

The bigger issue, though, was that those mergers and acquisitions didn’t just consolidate assets. It also consolidated financial power, which quickly became consolidated political power. Administrations of both parties glossed over this point by pretending that “vertical consolidation” is somehow less monopolistic than other forms of consolidation, which has proven to be nonsense. It still consolidates financial and political power in ways that distort governance, especially in providing more influence on legislatures to pass rent-seeking regulations to squelch competition and intimidate enforcement of existing regulations.

This has finally led to pushback on a global scale, Bloomberg reported yesterday:

Google is confronting a growing backlash against its market power in international markets, compounding the company’s regulatory challenges as it girds for an historic antitrust suit from the U.S. Justice Dept.

In just a matter of weeks, the search giant’s business practices have drawn scrutiny in Australia, South Korea and India. The European Union’s antitrust chief has already threatened to break up Google if it won’t change its ways, while the company pulled out of China a decade ago because of government censorship.

India is a prime example of how Google’s troubles could undercut future growth. More than 200 startup founders have banded together and opened discussions with the government to stop the Alphabet Inc. unit from imposing a 30% fee on smartphone app purchases, its standard levy around the world. While Google delayed implementation for six months after an outcry last week, the country’s tech industry is determined to constrain the colossus.

“As a country, can we afford to give away so much power to one or two monopolistic foreign companies?” said Anupam Mittal, a prominent angel investor and startup founder. “If India wants to create the next Microsoft or Alibaba, the government has to act now.”

Here at home, the pushback has become bipartisan, at least to some degree. House Democrats’ report on antitrust issues writes like an amicus brief to the pending DoJ lawsuit:

The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, which released its investigation findings of Big Tech’s competitive behavior Tuesday, stated that the Alphabet-owned company has held its domination in markets ranging from search to advertising to maps by favoring its own services and demoting third parties — often at the command of executives. The report also warned of furthering “potential” unfair behavior in the company’s growing cloud business and its Fitbit acquisition proposal.

The nearly 450-page report, which was overseen by the Democratic majority on the committee, included information gathered through hearings, interviews and 1.3 million documents. It concludes that Google, as well as Amazon, Apple and Facebook, enjoyed monopoly power and suggested Congress take up changes to antitrust laws that could force them to split apart parts of their businesses and make it harder to complete acquisitions.

“The overwhelmingly dominant provider of general online search is Google, which captures around 81% of all general search queries in the U.S. on desktop and 94% on mobile,” the report says.

“Google abused its gatekeeper power over online search to coerce vertical websites to surrender valuable data and to leverage its search dominance into adjacent markets,” the report states. “Google used its search engine dominance and control over the Android operating system to grow its share of the web browser market and favor its other lines of business,” it added.

The web browser market is hardly the biggest issue, but it’s been a DoJ favorite since Microsoft Explorer first eclipsed other open-source browsers in the late 1990s. Politico recently reported that they want to force Google to sell off Chrome in order to break up their control, but who would buy it? Forbes’ list of candidates mainly come from the near-monopoly set: Samsung, Oracle, HP, Adobe, and … Microsoft –the same company from which the DoJ attempted to wrest control of Internet Explorer.

That’s a depressing commentary on the Too Big to Fail status of the American economy.

The US once acted to break up AT&T, which was unpopular at the time but led to an explosion of telecommunications innovation. If they could break up Ma Bell, who literally had tentacles in almost every house and office in America, the feds can certainly bust up the tech giants and some of the other Too Big to Fail institutions in other industries. All they need is the will to do it — but forgive my pessimism over that prospect if their proposed solution for Google is to peel off a web browser and give it to another acquisition-built monolith in the market.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on September 22, 2023
David Strom 3:21 PM on September 22, 2023