Jun 14, 2022 - Technology

Tech antitrust backers and opponents clash in media

John Oliver discusses tech monopolies on his show Last Week Tonight
Photo courtesy of HBO

As a tough antitrust bill aimed at clipping Big Tech's wings gains headway in Congress, supporters and opponents are battling in the media, hoping to sway the public.

Driving the news: John Oliver devoted an entire segment to Big Tech and pending antitrust bills in Congress on Sunday night on his HBO show, "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver."

  • A YouTube video of Oliver's antitrust segment has so far drawn 2.4 million views.
  • That follows a $25 million TV ad blitz by tech lobbyists urging Americans not to support the bills.

What they're saying: In Oliver's signature style, he made an impassioned argument in favor of two bills, saying they would "crack open innovation."

  • Oliver used talking points and research long touted by pro-antitrust advocates to urge people to support the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act.
  • “The problem with letting a few companies control whole sectors of our economy is that it limits what is possible by startups,” Oliver said. “An innovative app or website or startup may never get off the ground because it could be surcharged to death, buried in search results or ripped off completely.”

How it works: The Innovation and Choice bill would ban Big Tech companies from favoring their own services in an anticompetitive way.

  • Under it, Amazon could not preference its in-house label products over third-party sellers and Google could not surface its reviews over others in search results. Apple would have to loosen its grip on the App Store.
  • Tech companies have long maintained that their services, platforms and app stores are open, fair and designed to protect users' privacy and security.

Why it matters: At the same time antitrust-bill supporters reached a mainstream HBO audience, defenders of Big Tech say their media blitz has made a difference among voters.

  • TV advertising against the Innovation and Choice bill has changed minds, according to research from the Don't Break What Works campaign shared exclusively with Axios.
  • That campaign, funded by the Computer & Communications and Industry Association, warns people of a future where services like Amazon Prime are no longer available.
  • A mid-March phone survey of 2,000 people in Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire and Nevada, taken before and after CCIA's $25 million campaign launched, showed support for the Innovation and Choice bill dropped among voters 8 points since the ads launched, and opposition increased 7 points.

Flashback: Antitrust advocates were quick to draw comparisons between Oliver's Sunday segment and celebrated shows he presented on net neutrality in 2014 and 2017.

  • Those spurred people to contact the Federal Communications Commission about passing rules to enshrine the concept into law.
  • That was a turning point, advocates argue, and they're hoping history repeats itself for antitrust.
  • "The reality is just he has a large audience, he does a really great job explaining things. ... It could not have come at a better time. We're really down to the wire here," Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, told Axios. "We did see with net neutrality that it helped sort of focus the public's attention."

Yes, but: Net neutrality engaged a groundswell of consumer support. That was a long time ago. The media landscape has changed.

  • Pressuring an often deadlocked Congress with a very busy agenda has become much more of an uphill task.

What to watch: Of several tech-related bills under consideration in Congress, the Innovation and Choice Act is widely viewed as having the best chance of success. It could see a floor vote in the next couple of weeks, Axios previously reported.

  • Its future is dim if it isn't passed soon and lawmakers turn their attention to the approaching midterm elections.
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