Jul 10, 2020 - Technology

Big Tech marshals a right-leaning army of allies for antitrust fight

Illustration of Capitol building with wifi beaming out

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As tech's giants prepare to face off with antitrust enforcers this summer, they will draw support from an array of predominantly right-leaning defenders ranging from influential former government officials to well-connected think tanks.

The big picture: The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the states have multiple investigations of monopolistic behavior underway targeting Facebook and Google, with other giants like Amazon and Apple also facing rising scrutiny. Many observers expect a lawsuit against Google to land this summer.

What they're saying: Rather than defending specific companies' practices, tech's allies are broadly urging caution, warning policymakers against enforcement action or legislation that would upend decades of antitrust law.

What's happening: Tech's antitrust allies include think tanks, trade groups and former regulators. They're mostly drawn from the ranks of the old-guard Republican establishment and its libertarian allies rather than the more populist wing of the Trump-era GOP, which has raised loud complaints of censorship by tech platforms.

The ex-officials:

  • Josh Wright — The GOP ex-Federal Trade Commissioner now leads George Mason University's Global Antitrust Institute, which has launched a project on the digital economy. Wright has criticized the antitrust case against Google in academic research, and argued that existing antitrust laws are sufficient to protect competition in the digital marketplace.
  • Maureen Ohlhausen — The former acting chair of the FTC, also a Republican, joined a letter from Wright and others arguing against "radical proposals" to rethink antitrust enforcement. In separate comments to House antitrust investigators, she warned against the consequences of changes such as prohibiting a platform from selling its own products on its website.
  • Tim Muris — The former Republican FTC chairman, who has previously done work for Facebook, wrote a paper (that received funding from Amazon) warning against changes to antitrust doctrine. He argued that history has shown consumers benefited from efficiencies and low prices delivered by large, vertically integrated businesses like the A&P grocery chain despite antitrust concerns. Muris also told House antitrust investigators in his own comments this year that existing law can deal with modern marketplace issues.

The think tanks and third-party organizations:

  • The Koch network — Charles Koch has supported a network of free-market groups that have focused on tech policy issues including antitrust, with Jesse Blumenthal and Neil Chilson, a former FTC chief technologist, leading the charge. "It's not about defending the big companies, but wanting the companies and the government to stick to the principles that foster innovation," Chilson told Axios.
  • International Center for Law & Economics — President and Founder Geoffrey Manne — who in 2010 teamed up with Wright in a paper arguing against building an antitrust case around Google — more recently argued that antitrust is not a "legal Swiss Army knife."
  • Heritage Foundation — Former Trump campaign adviser and economist Stephen Moore, who is on a temporary leave from Heritage, warned against breaking up Big Tech companies in a recent column and in a Fox Business appearance.

Another source of support for the tech companies: The trade groups and business associations that count the major companies as members or partners, including NetChoice and the Connected Commerce Council, which has argued that the large platforms are in fact good for small businesses.

Between the lines: Despite Silicon Valley's liberal reputation, its biggest companies aren't finding a lot of outspoken allies on the left. Many progressive groups have called for greater regulation or antitrust action against the companies, including some calls to break them up.

  • It's typical in antitrust matters for liberals to take aim at big corporations and conservatives to defend them. What's new in this case: Tech also has prominent critics on the right, including the president and the attorney general.

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Update: The Heritage Foundation responded to this story with a statement: "Heritage’s well-documented opposition to government overreach into the affairs of private industry long predates the existence of the tech industry as we know it today. Our long-standing support for the free market and our opposition to overregulation find certain applications in this current debate, but we staked out this ground long ago and are not doing any work on any basis other than established principle."

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