By Trace Mitchell
March 3, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
From the House Judiciary report calling for dramatic antitrust reform to federal antitrust regulators and state attorneys general initiating lawsuits against Facebook and Google, government officials are once again calling for more aggressive antitrust enforcement to go after America’s tech businesses.
And while critics from all sides are reaching for any and all tools to go after “Big Tech,” weaponizing antitrust will only end up harming American consumers and the American economy at a time when we’re still trying to keep our heads above water.
Using antitrust to go after American tech won’t stop at Silicon Valley. Every sector of our economy will be at risk of politically motivated antitrust enforcement. And that won’t just hurt consumers searching for information on Google or shopping for products on Amazon — America’s economy could lose its global competitiveness amid a global pandemic.
In fact, the recent cases against Google from the Department of Justice and state attorneys general are a great example of just how this misuse of antitrust could harm Americans across the country and halt innovation in its tracks.
These suits conveniently forget how consumers benefit from Google’s suite of products in attempts to claim that Google unfairly monopolized the search and search advertising markets. Even worse, by claiming consumer harm, the government fails to truly grasp what consumers actually want.
You see, under the consumer welfare standard, antitrust enforcement is built to focus on what consumers want and whether consumers benefit. When the government argues Google is harming Americans because its products are preinstalled and even the default search engine on Apple, the government forgets that American consumers don’t think this is a problem.
The vast majority of search users prefer Google to its competitors. And through preinstallation, we get free-to-use products, quick searches and near-limitless information in an integrated system with the click of a mouse. It isn’t a problem; it’s a time saver. Further, because Google can reinvest in developing more user-friendly tech in a preinstalled ecosystem, we get interoperable apps that make our experience that much more convenient and intuitive. And even if consumers do want a different app, they can fix this problem with no heavy leg work or travel — just the swipe of a finger.
But if the government gets its way, the message could be disastrous for innovation: Even if your business benefits Americans and improves the user experience, the government can still put a target on your back. Not to mention, the government would be more likely to put a target on your back if you’re large and politically disfavored. Consumers across the internet and the American economy would be hurt and left without more accessible and more affordable technology as options.
We should be working to reward, not punish, innovation. Otherwise, the next Google may just decide it isn’t worth the time and effort.
Similarly, the Federal Trade Commission’s recent case against Facebook also puts the wants of policymakers above the actual interests of consumers.
Here, the government claims that Facebook harms consumers by acquiring and then integrating services like Instagram and WhatsApp. So harmful, the Federal Trade Commission says, that Facebook must divest from these services, even if that would harm American consumers, innovation and entrepreneurship for decades to come.
But this is not a case of consumer harm or bad behavior — Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp helped ensure that consumers’ desires were prioritized. Through millions of investment dollars into research and development, Facebook turned good services into great services that consumers actively keep coming back to.
Through relentless product improvement, WhatsApp became a free-to-use platform and Instagram became one of the most successful photo-sharing social media apps in the world. In both cases, consumers benefited from convenient and state-of-the-art advancements. No longer do we have to pay to use messaging or search through multiple results to shop our influencer feed.
As it stands, the Federal Trade Commission case could splinter one successful tech company into multiple, less efficient organizations, setting a precedent that could affect every American industry. Consumers would not only lose Facebook’s free-to-use services but also potentially the next big clothing brand or the next hit microbrewed beer.
By impeding mergers, the sheer fear of potential antitrust enforcement would shutter the doors on small businesses from all sectors of the economy. So much investment in innovation is built on the possibility of being acquired by a larger player. Entrepreneurs and innovators from manufacturing, automotive and tech alike would be left with an unfortunate takeaway — succeed and benefit consumers, but not too much.
And with an economy still struggling to recover, the absolute last thing we need is to leave consumers without innovative and affordable choices, small businesses without key investment opportunities and our economy without a competitive edge globally.
But by weaponizing antitrust, we’ll get neither thoughtful intervention nor consumer benefits. Instead, the United States will lose ground to foreign competitors and American consumers will ultimately pay the price.
Trace Mitchell is policy counsel at NetChoice, a trade organization.
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