In summer of 2017, my head to the Washington Monthly, a political magazine in DC, asked me to cover a bomb story: the Democratic Party had included an anti-monopoly section in its mid-term “Better Deal” agenda 2018.
I use the term “bomb” ironically. U Monthly had published detailed stories about the tolls of antitrust law enforcement for about a decade, to little fanfare. Now, finally, the people in power were paying attention. For the general public, some general statements about economic concentration in a document that almost no one paid attention to were not a major story. But in our corner of the political world, in 2017, it was very important just to hear Chuck Schumer speak the word. ”antitrust. ” My piece went on the stop.
I think about that experience recently, since antitrust headlines seem to be everywhere. It is often suggested that law and government can never keep up with technology. Yet the events of recent weeks suggest that the recent effort to regulate the largest technology companies may be an exception to this rule. Amazon Prime membership didn’t exist until 2005, 11 years after Amazon’s founding, and it has yet to reach 20 million subscribers. until 2013. Google was 10 years old when it launched the Chrome browser. Facebook has been around for eight years before buying Instagram and 10 when it acquired WhatsApp.
Now consider antitrust. Four years ago, Lina Khan was a month out of law school, where she had published a revolution article arguing that prevailing legal doctrine allowed Amazon to escape with anti-competitive behavior. Antitrust law was also not a high-profile issue, and Khan’s suggestion that it could apply to technology companies that offered major consumers were free or famously cheap was considered strange by much of the legal establishment. This week, Khan, all 32 years old, was nominated chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, one of the two agencies with the most power to enforce competition law. Meanwhile, Congress has introduced a set of projects that represent the most ambitious bipartisan proposals to update antitrust law in decades, with the technology industry as its explicit goal. Politics, in other words, can finally move at the speed of technology.
In retrospect, what seems most notable about the Better Deal agenda is that it hasn’t been mentioned at all by tech companies. Up to this point, the anti-monopoly movement in DC’s political circles had been much more focused on traditional industries. Khan made her start writing about consolidation in companies like meat packing and Halloween candies. Silicon Valley always seemed politically untouchable. To take it like Facebook and Google, I wrote at the time, “we want to anger some of the most important and important donors of Democrats, something the party has not yet revealed an appetite for.”
How have things changed so quickly? There is no one who smokes the weapon, but rather a accumulation of complaints that has pitted Democrats and Republicans increasingly against tech companies. For Democrats, the key factor was the creepy sense that social media platforms, whatever the political leanings of their founders, had helped Donald Trump get elected. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 it overwhelmed those suspects. Meanwhile, investigative reports have continued to find evidence that far-right and racist material is spreading on social media. At the same time – and in part as a reaction to social media platforms implementing more aggressive content moderation to soften both advertisers and liberal critics – conservatives were increasingly concerned that liberals in Silicon Valley were discriminating against them. And Republican politicians were picking on him political power from that point of view.