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From the DOJ's Google lawsuit to a new House report, antitrust is on the 2020 ballot

Voters have an opportunity to change the course of big tech in November — and for that matter, the economy. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed.
Image: Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Google CEO Sundar Pichai is sworn in as he testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on Dec. 11, 2018.Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

Last week, the Trump administration sued Google for alleged anticompetitive abuses. Specifically, Trump's Justice Department argued that Google is illegally protecting its monopoly over search and search advertising. This follows up on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee's October report — written and advanced by the majority Democrats — that made one definitive assertion: There is a total lack of competition in the American digital economy. Put together, it's clear that on both sides of the aisle, there is deep concern over anticompetitive business practices by Silicon Valley’s biggest tech giants.

It's clear that on both sides of the aisle, there is deep concern over anticompetitive business practices by Silicon Valley’s biggest tech giants.

For consumers, the lack of competition has become beyond obvious. We turn to the most dominant digital platforms operated by a select few Silicon Valley giants — namely, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook — first and foremost for social media, texting, internet search and e-commerce. We have relied on these companies for more than a decade to find information at the click of a button, read the news, buy goods and order services, engage with our friends, and do our work. This November, Americans have an opportunity to shape the future of big tech at the ballot box.

The pandemic has forced most Americans to spend even more time at home — and, critically, online. Many of us work remotely, shop remotely, meet friends remotely and carry out other activities like visiting the doctor and attending classes online. This reality has brought more and more Americans to think about the reliability of the platforms they turn to, the advertisements they see, the information they take in, the data they share, and their online security. We have become even more dependent on dominant internet companies in 2020, and this dependence may continue for much longer than we might imagine.

Competition policy was once a niche, abstract topic. But now, its implications are becoming increasingly tangible. Consumers understand that anticompetitive practices conducted by the largest technology companies affect them. The monopolistic behavior of companies like Facebook and Google affects the amount they pay for products and services. It affects their online privacy from corporate surveillance by all-seeing platforms. It affects the organic content and advertisements they see. It affects the experience they have on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. And it affects the small businesses that are striving for a fair chance to succeed.

Data released this summer by the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner indicated that Americans believe that the big tech companies have too much power. A Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll survey published last year showed that more than two thirds of American voters believe that tech companies like Google and Facebook should face antitrust reviews.

Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed deep concerns about the economic and political power of Silicon Valley. Republicans are worried about anti-conservative bias on social media platforms, with Republican leaders like President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas suggesting that companies like Facebook have suppressed right-wing voices.

Democrats are meanwhile concerned about anti-competitive business practices, consumer privacy and, more broadly, the sheer economic exploitation conducted by the dominant digital platforms — in alignment with the suggestions put forth in the October report by the House Judiciary anti-trust subcommittee. While both parties have expressed concerns, they have arrived at their distaste over big tech from very different perspectives. Finding the common ground to once and for all put regulations in effect will still be a much longer battle. However, the 2020 election offers a pivotal turning point. The outcome of the elections will determine the fate of the biggest technology companies in the coming years; voters have the opportunity to choose their course.

The House Democrats report proposes a progressive overhaul of the way we conduct and enforce competition policy in the United States with an eye to rein in big tech — a path forward that Republicans thus far sharply oppose. The subcommittee Democrats suggest in the report that Congress should consider advancing new rules to block or condition acquisitions proposed by dominant platforms — and force breakups of them to boot. This approach includes a preliminary fix: presume that any acquisition by a dominant platform is anticompetitive unless the merging parties can show that the transaction is necessary to serve the public interest and that similar benefits cannot be achieved through internal growth and expansion of the acquiring big tech company.

Republicans are supportive of boosting funding and staffing for regulators and also back measures to give consumers more control over their data but stand in strong opposition to more aggressive — albeit economically and regulatory fitting — proposals from Democrats. One thing is clear: Over the past four years, Republicans with control of the Senate and presidency have not taken action to rein in the power of the dominant internet platforms. Instead the Trump administration has facilitated the growth of dominant internet platforms through the trade war with China and empowered these companies through implicit quid pro quo negotiations.

Voters have an opportunity to change the course of big tech in November — and for that matter, the economy. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed.