April 18, 2021

So Wait, People Seriously Think Bill Barr Will Rein In Tech Monopoly Power?

So we’ve noted for a while how while a lot of the anger against “big tech” is certainly justified, there’s a sizeable segment of this growing DC chorus that’s being quietly orchestrated by telecom giants. Companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast just effectively convinced the FCC to self-immolate, dismantling huge swaths of its broadband consumer protection authority (what could go wrong?). At the same time, the DOJ and FCC have been rubber stamping every terrible telecom merger than comes down the pike. When it comes to telecom monopolies, you’ll hear nary a peep from the Trump administration.

Contrast that to the GOP and Trump administration’s sudden, breathless interest in “big tech” monopolies. In case you’d missed it, top telecom lobbyists have spent the last two years pushing ironically for a massive regulatory crackdown on “big tech” companies. For example Mike Powell, former FCC boss turned top cable industry lobbyist, put it this way at a 2018 appearance at an industry trade event:

“Our governmental authorities need to get a handle on what kind of market power and harm flow from companies that have an unassailable hold on large pools of big data, which serve as barriers to entry, allowing them to dominate industries throughout the economy,” he said. “For years, big tech companies have been extinguishing competitive threats by buying or crushing promising new technologies just as they were emerging. They dominate their core business, and rarely have to foreclose competition by buying their peers. Competition policy must scrutinize more rigorously deals that allow dominant platforms to kill competitive technologies in the cradle,” he added.”

So you’ll notice here that telecom is accusing big tech of all the things telecom routinely engages in, from buying competitors to stifle competition, to laying claim to massive troves of consumer data with little accountability or oversight. This bizarre asymmetrical policy positioning, where Silicon Valley monopolies are bad but telecom monopolies apparently don’t exist, has since become a DC mainstay, as reflected by the positions of folks like Josh Hawley and Marsha Blackburn. Neither have so much as mentioned telecom in passing in their conversations about monopoly power, and the latter of the two has literally never seen an AT&T policy proposal she didn’t support.

Enter Bill Barr, the former Verizon General Counsel who spent years helping Verizon crush competitors, violate privacy and wiretap law, and generally engage in all the kind of behaviors he’s now supposedly policing. On that end, reports this week emerged stating that Barr has slowly been taking control of numerous antitrust inquiries at the DOJ from DOJ antitrust boss Makan Delrahim:

“Barr has centralized oversight of antitrust matters under a handful of appointees in his office and that of his deputy attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen. Those moves have sidelined the Antitrust Division’s current leadership, headed by Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who for the past year has been the public face of DOJ’s investigations into Silicon Valley’s treatment of its users and customers.”

Delrahim of course flubbed the AT&T Time Warner lawsuit, which I still believe had more to do with pleasing Rupert Murdoch and pissing off CNN than any serious concern about monopoly power. Such concerns are violently out of character for the Trump administration, which only seems to embrace such rhetoric when it serves a political purpose (see: the nonexistent censorship of Conservatives). Delrahim also just came under fire recently for rubber stamping the controversial Sprint T-Mobile merger in some very problematic ways, tying himself in knots to approve the competition-eroding deal.

On one hand, you could believe that Barr suddenly and uncharacteristically cares about monopolies and is engaged in a good faith effort to more seriously police them, as Matt Stoller suggests here:

“He has an understanding of what it’s like to be in competition with these monopolists. He understands what’s at stake,” said Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly nonprofit.

“I have more faith in Barr than in Delrahim,” added Stoller, though he still predicted that Barr and the DOJ would bring a narrower antitrust suit against the tech platforms than he believes is warranted.

The problem with this claim is Barr has never, in history, shown the slightest interest in seriously reining in monopoly power, as his time at Verizon makes pretty clear. It’s far more likely that Barr’s interested in using the DOJ’s antitrust enforcement authority as a political and personal blunt weapon. Notably to help this administration’s BFFs in the telecom sector wage regulatory war on companies they (not at all coincidentally) are trying to erode video ad market share from. It’s similar to the way that Ajit Pai has bizarrely demonized Netflix while just completely ignoring much worse problems in telecom.

As Mike noted in a recent interview with Mathew Ingram, it’s also very likely Trump sees these inquiries as a great way to gain leverage in efforts like his misguided war on encryption:

“In reality, Barr has been (misleadingly) complaining about encryption to support his authoritarian impulses to want to have access to all information. This has never been the way the world works, and thanks to technology, law enforcement already has more access than ever to most information about people. The real goal here for Barr was just to use 230 as a wedge to try to break encryption.”

There’s really been zero evidence to suggest most of these “big tech” inquiries at the DOJ are being seriously conducted in good faith. In fact there’s ample evidence the wheels of DOJ antitrust enforcement have been hijacked for what has often been bizarre and petty vendettas on behalf of Trump. But sure, a guy who spent years propping up US telecom monopolies and has never shown the slightest genuine interest in the problems monopolies cause is just the guy to finally fix the nation’s longstanding monopoly problems, why not.
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