By David Balto
September 22, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
This summer’s “Big Tech” antitrust hearing was hailed as an “historic” opportunity to hear from the four CEOs of America’s leading technology companies. Interestingly, the word “antitrust” only came up about 23 times over the course of over five hours of testimony and questioning. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t an antitrust hearing, and most of the documents leaked by the House Democrats during the hearing don’t prove any anti-competitive behavior. In fact, many of the emails demonstrate the opposite — that vigorous competition in the technology sector is leading to better products and new innovations.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai, for one, answered a range of questions, from allegations of conservative censorship to gripes about campaign emails getting stuck in constituents’ spam folders. Many questions focused on how individual competitors may have been harmed by individual product decisions. A lot of allegations were made, and a lot of complaints were aired. No one seemed to ask how consumers were harmed if at all.
The documents released by House Democrats in the middle of the hearing — the supposed “smoking gun” — actually support Google’s position that the company is no sleepy monopolist, but rather is driven by a highly competitive marketplace. Many of the documents show that in the face of intense competition, the company developed new innovations and new ways to give consumers what they want.
For example, a Google memo about product searches consistently cites competitors like Amazon and eBay, and repeatedly maps out strategies to better compete by delivering high-quality user experiences. Google’s goal is clear: to “provide a better experience for product queries on Google.” Other emails demonstrate a ready understanding that Google’s success can be easily overtaken by competitors such as Amazon, Yelp, Kayak and Bing if the company isn’t offering compelling experiences for users.
In antitrust terms, this kind of behavior is exactly what the law is designed to encourage. This isn’t like the situation a generation ago when Microsoft made it impossible for people to access alternative web browsers without having to physically purchase a floppy disk at the store and wait hours for the software to download on their Windows desktops. Or when pharmaceutical companies are found guilty of raising prices of live saving drugs. This isn’t a case of Ma Bell holding back the development of new phone technology.
It’s even more than what the documents show; it’s also about what they don’t show. The emails do not reveal any attempt by Google to destroy or exclude rivals, raise prices or lock in users that would raise eyebrows from antitrust enforcers. So it’s no wonder that when the Federal Trade Commission conducted a nearly two-year antitrust investigation into Google, it found the company’s business decisions were possibly motivated by improving user experiences.
There’s a lot of hype about “Big Tech” these days, but what no one seems to be able to articulate is: What is the harm to consumers? That’s the critical question for any antitrust enforcer, and has been since Justice Brennan said over 50 years ago, “the purpose of the antitrust laws is to protect consumers, not competitors.”
No one can articulate it because tech companies like Google provide clear consumer benefits and value. Pichai testified to them: lower prices to help small businesses generate billions in revenues, increased choice for consumers and free state-of-the-art technologies that help us in our daily lives.
Nothing coming out of the hearing, including the widely touted documents, demonstrates that consumers have been harmed. Instead, they revealed that these four companies and many others compete hard for users, leading to free or inexpensive products, greater innovation and more choice in digital markets than any other time in our history.
David Balto is a public interest antitrust attorney who previously served as policy director at the Federal Trade Commission, as an attorney in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, and as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the New America Foundation; he advises several companies in the tech industry, including Google.
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