Last week, the House Antitrust Subcommittee held an unique hearing where executives from Sonos, Tile, Basecamp, and PopSockets laid out the difficulties of working and taking on big tech companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon. It seemed like a turning point in the conversation about huge tech platforms and the power they have more than competitors, something PopSockets CEO David Barnett called “bullying with a smile.”
” assist us Congress, you’re our only hope,” stated Basecamp’s David Heinemeier-Hansson. It was like that.
But the hearing was just one part of a prolonged Antitrust Subcommittee investigation into the competitiveness of digital markets led by Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI) that’s been going on for some time– a bipartisan examination that will conclude with a report and recommendations for new laws and guidelines that govern how huge tech platforms work. Cicilline joined Edge senior reporter Adi Robertson and editor-in-chief Nilay Patel for a special interview episode of The Vergecast this week where he discussed what he’s learned and how he plans to take on the huge platform monopolies.
The following excerpt has been gently modified for clarity and length.
So we’re talking while opening arguments of impeachment are going on in the Senate. It looks like there’s simply a great deal of polarization worldwide. I was viewing the [antitrust] hearing, and I was struck that there seems to be at least a bipartisan consensus on the issue, if not the compound.
You know, when we released the examination, that was carried out in a bipartisan way with the complete support of the ranking member, the Republican leader on the Judiciary Committee along with the ranking member of the subcommittee, [Rep. Jim] Sensenbrenner.
So the examination has been completely bipartisan and in a very real way. Our personnels are working closely together. And I believe you’re right. I don’t know that we’ll have contract on every single proposal or a recommendation that the final report makes, but I think there’s broad acknowledgment from Republicans and Democrats that this market is not working appropriately, that there is a significant lack of competition and strong proof of anti-competitive habits by the dominant platforms. And I believe there is a genuine understanding and expectation that we’re going to do something about this as a Congress. The American people are anticipating us to. So it’s been very bipartisan. I hope it will remain that method.
One of the striking things from the hearing last week was how various the allegations versus each of these companies was. Just how much do you believe the very same solution is going to work for Google and Apple and Facebook and Amazon?
That’s a great question. We’ve been very cautious in this examination to obtain information from the platforms, both in statement and in documents appropriate to the method those platforms are operating, due to the fact that I believe they’re not all the very same, and their behavior has been different in numerous aspects.
So I believe we’re going to take a look at options that offer a reaction broadly to the marketplace. There are some concerns where I think there have been extremely major issues by a particular company in this location or this particular company in that area. I think this is really much about the marketplace usually, and you will not see recommendations that are specific to a company, simply like the investigation is not about a company, it’s actually about the marketplace broadly. And so I hope the suggestions we establish, both in regards to legislation and in terms of proposed policies, will deal with the marketplace broadly, however certainly respond to a number of different activities that we have actually seen throughout the investigation.
Do you believe that you can craft a single structure that’s going to deal with the entire spread of problems from that hearing?
The objective is to produce competitors, to secure competitors in that digital market so that when Amazon says “give us back money for offering your product at a lower expense,” people have an opportunity to think about another platform because that other platform will have had an opportunity to grow and be successful and enter the marketplace. I believe you can think of a number of ideas.
That’s a quite timeless conception of a behavioral remedy. “You can’t do this.” We’re going to say you can’t do it. You’re forbidden from doing it. There was a lot of talk about, especially with Amazon, the platforms self-dealing, cutting themselves better offers, offering their own items.
I spoke to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in 2015, and she stated you can’t just do fundamental behavioral options. You’ve got to do a structural option. Which’s why she was proposing breakups. Do you agree with her on that?
First Off, I believe it’s difficult. Congress has particular powers, and separating companies is really not one of them.
So while we might have made a mistake by permitting some of these companies to get as big as they have– in truth, we have made a mistake. I believe we should have had much more rigorous antitrust enforcement that would have prevented a variety of these business from getting as huge as they are. That’s an issue.
Therefore I think what we have to find out now is: exist ways to require a retrospective review of some deals? There’s no other way to ensure that if the transaction is authorized based on a set of expectations, that you then have a choice to drop in if those expectations were bad or something various took place and gain from that. I believe it’s more difficult for Congress to think about enacting a statute that breaks up companies.
But I do think that the other recommendation that Sen. Warren has actually made is a really fascinating one and something I think about a lot: the idea of “You can be either a platform or you can be a manufacturer or a producer of services, however you can’t do both.” Sort of the Glass-Steagall of the internet. It’s type of an intriguing idea since individuals go to a platform thinking, somehow, when they do a search, there’s some neutral way that proof is examined, and you’re supplied with an arise from that search.
You understand, you’re both a platform and a producer of items. And so it’s kind of a fascinating idea to believe: should you at least separate out those functions and say you can be one or the other, but you can’t be both?
I believe these business are too huge, and we have actually permitted them to exercise monopoly power. There is not a system that I can believe of that would enable us, as Congress, to go and break up a specific business.
I have actually had a lot of Microsoft executives from the ’90 s tweeting me all day about how Microsoft’s antitrust fit didn’t really achieve anything. And really, the question that they keep asking is: what should not you be able to incorporate?
So Tile was at the hearing. Apple’s products will undoubtedly have higher access to the operating system of the iPhone than Tile’s product.
I would need to think about the example you provided. Definitely if, in that example, Apple makes it much more challenging for individuals to access the Tile product utilizing their software application and … they continuously get reminders [asking], “Do you want to continue this service?” or constantly prodding them to have to address a timely. And that creates the kind of friction that guarantees that their rival doesn’t really have access to the marketplace. Or if they do, it’s short-term.
I think what we have to look at is if the behavior of the company can relatively be described as anti-competitive.
How do we deal with the reality that these 4 big technology platforms are so big and control so much of the market? It’s not good for development, and it’s not great for competition.
I’m curious about your view of the Microsoft/ Netscape enforcement action, which appears to be the shadow over all of this. Did it work? Did it not work? Did just knocking Microsoft back a little bit produce the environment for Google to emerge? There are several analyses of what occurred.
I don’t believe there’s any question it worked. I don’t think there’s any question that made area for a huge amount of extra development and competition, simply pursuing the enforcement action itself, not the permission decree.
Are you wishing for a similar outcome here? Are you hoping to take it one step even more?
This is not an examination that leads to an enforcement action examination.
Congress is the only location that has the ability to really change the statutes and upgrade the laws and put proposed regulations in location that actually repair this market. Unlike an enforcement action that focuses on the habits– a single business gets directed to do a single thing– our work is much wider. And it is really more considerable due to the fact that if we do it right, we can get this digital market working correctly. Which will benefit customers. It will benefit the next great business that’s going to boil down the pike due to the fact that competitors was possible.
However if you write a lot of new laws and policies, and then you staff a company with imaginative, passionate people who wish to do it, you’re going to result in a lot more enforcement actions, most likely.
Correct. Or much better habits by digital platforms.