Feb 17, 2022 - Technology

Two sides gear up for tech antitrust showdown

Illustration of a hand holding a hammer breaking away pieces of a briefcase.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Progressive organizations are going big on anti-monopoly messaging as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce defends Big Tech.

Driving the news: As the Chamber launches attacks on antitrust moves against tech’s biggest firms, the group Fight Corporate Monopolies is launching a new “War Room” campaign Thursday, per an announcement shared exclusively with Axios.

  • Wednesday the Chamber released a report arguing that proposed antitrust bills in Congress aimed at Big Tech companies like Google, Apple, Meta and Amazon would harm American competitiveness and undermine national security. It also charges that Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan is hurting U.S. business.
  • Fight Corporate Monopolies is shifting from Big Tech to Big Everything: the group was also responsible for the Freedom From Facebook and Google campaign, which aggressively advocated for tech breakups.

Why it matters: The group is betting that blaming big corporations for economic problems across U.S. sectors, including banking, pharmaceuticals and Big Tech, will be a winning message for Democrats in the midterm elections.

  • "This is a make or break moment for figuring out the right way to not just tell voters which side you're on, but to actually move aggressively to show them whose side you're on," said Sarah Miller, executive director of Fight Corporate Monopolies, and executive director and founder of the American Economic Liberties Project.

Details: Fight Corporate Monopolies is launching a rapid response campaign and a six-figure public opinion research effort, along with preliminary poll results testing sentiment on the power of big corporations.

  • Helen Brosnan, a Democratic politics veteran who worked on Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign and for the Justice Democrats, will be executive director of the effort.

What they're saying: Brosnan said candidates who campaign on economics win: "We like to say, 'it's corporate greed, stupid!' We know that 'it's the economy, stupid!' worked in the 1990s."

  • "[The Chamber] is the largest lobbying group in the country and they've declared war. And we're prepared to fight back," Brosnan said.
  • "For the last 40 years, the FTC rolled over for the Chamber's corporate backers as they crushed competitors, ripped off consumers, and laid off workers," said Miller. "Now, we finally have antitrust enforcers who the Chamber knows they can't control."

By the numbers: Preliminary results from the group's first poll conclude that Americans think big corporations harm the economy.

  • In a poll of 2,401 U.S. adults, conducted by data firm Grow Progress, 58% agreed with the sentence that "Big corporations hurt Americans."
  • 87% of those polled agreed with the notion that "Big corporations have too much power." 77% of those polled think elected officials should prevent big corporations from hurting Americans.
  • Other surveys by Fight Corporate Monopolies and Grow Progress found that 79%, of 1,621 respondents, agreed that groceries, rent and gas go up in price because a few big corporations control the market and drive up prices.
  • And 75%, of 1,006 respondents, agreed that elected officials can and should be responsible for “reining in the power of big corporations.”

The big picture: Big Tech has an ally in the Chamber of Commerce, which spent $65 million on lobbying in 2021. Executives from Facebook and Microsoft are on the Chamber's board of directors. Google often works with the Chamber.

  • The Chamber previously accused FTC chair Lina Khan of breaching the agency's legal authority and of "waging war on American business," and is prepping a lawsuit to get access to her communications and policy documents.
  • "Any time we see a big expansion in regulatory power over industry, we’re going to get involved,” Suzanne Clark, the chamber’s chief executive officer, in told Bloomberg News this week. “We didn’t choose the FTC and antitrust. That battle came to us.” 

Context: Congress has yet to pass any major antitrust legislation, although some bills have passed through committee.

  • But the Biden administration is more closely scrutinizing acquisitions, and some have been scrapped.
  • "We have done best when we encourage companies to compete, and we force the giants to prove that they actually have what it takes and that we don't accept this easy idea that we should leave well enough alone," said Tim Wu, special assistant to the president on technology and competition policy, speaking at an antitrust event Wednesday.

Flashback: Fight Corporate Monopolies did a six-figure ad buy for Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri) during her 2020 primary challenge of former Rep. William Lacy Clay, painting Clay as aligned with Wall Street interests. Bush won, which Brosnan says is an example of how the group's message can succeed.

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