The US government is finally moving at the speed of technology


""Tech News"" – Google News

In summer In 2017 my boss asked me to report a bombshell story to Washington Monthly, a policy-oriented magazine in DC: The Democratic Party had included an anti-monopoly section in its medium-term agenda 2018, “Better Deal”.

I use the term “bomb” ironically. The Monthly has published meticulous stories of the toll of lax cartel enforcement for a decade without attracting much attention. Now at last the rulers were paying attention to them. For the general public, some general statements about economic concentration in a document that was neglected was not a big story. But in our corner of the political world in 2017 it was a big deal to hear Chuck Schumer speak just the word “antitrust law”. My piece went on the cover.

I’ve been pondering this experience lately as antitrust headlines seem to be all over the place. It is often said that the law and government can never keep up with the pace of technology. Yet events of the past few weeks suggest that recent efforts to regulate the largest tech companies may be an exception to this rule. Amazon Prime membership didn’t exist until 2005, 11 years after Amazon was founded, and didn’t even reach 20 million subscribers by 2013. Google was 10 years old when it launched the Chrome browser. Facebook was around eight years before it bought Instagram and 10 years after it acquired WhatsApp.

Now consider antitrust law. Four years ago, Lina Khan had graduated from law school for a month where she published a groundbreaking article arguing that prevailing legal doctrine allowed Amazon to get away with anti-competitive behavior. Antitrust law was not yet a high profile issue, and Khan’s suggestion that it could apply to tech companies whose core consumer offerings were free or known to be cheap was viewed as bizarre by much of the legal establishment. This week, 32-year-old Khan was named chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, one of the two agencies with the greatest powers to enforce competition law. Congress, meanwhile, has tabled a series of bills that are the most ambitious bipartisan proposals to update antitrust law in decades, with the tech industry as their express goal. In other words, politics may finally be moving at the speed of technology.

In hindsight, the most remarkable thing about the Better Deal agenda appears that tech companies were not mentioned at all. Up until that point, the antimonopoly movement in DC policy circles was much more focused on traditional industries. Khan started writing about consolidation in companies like Meatpacking and Halloween Candy. Silicon Valley still seemed politically untouchable. The acquisitions of Facebook and Google, I wrote at the time, would “require the annoyance of some of the most important and deepest funders of the Democrats, which the party is not yet hungry for.”

How did things change so quickly? There is no such thing as the one smoking weapon, but rather an accumulation of grievances that both Democrats and Republicans have increasingly raised against the tech companies. For the Democrats, the key factor was the creeping feeling that social media platforms, regardless of the political leanings of their founders, had helped Donald Trump get elected. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 heightened those suspicions. Investigation reports, meanwhile, repeatedly found indications that right-wing extremist and racist material was spreading on social media. At the same time – and in part in response to social media platforms that implemented more aggressive content moderation to appease both advertisers and liberal critics – conservatives became concerned that Silicon Valley liberals were discriminating against them. And Republican politicians took up the political potency of this topic of conversation.

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