For years, Amazon hadn’t faced the antitrust scrutiny that plagued rivals like Apple and Alphabet. But now Jeff Bezos finds his firm at the center of an intense ideological battle over the role of big tech companies in the U.S. economy.
In October 2020, Congress questioned the business practices of the technology behemoths and recommended remedies for their excesses in a report called Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets. It rivals a Tom Clancy novel in length, and it convinced Amazon to try to shift the focus of the public narrative away from regulatory reform.
Meanwhile, Congress remains divided over whether to rip giant tech companies asunder through antitrust action. It should take drastic action, according to such luminaries as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes; antitrust scholar Tim Wu, who’s on President Biden’s National Economic Council; and Lina Khan, Biden’s nominee to head the Federal Trade Commission.
Congress could also follow the advice of Federal Communications Commission head Tom Wheeler or former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Jason Furman. Both favor regulating big tech the way the European Commission has tried, which includes requiring companies to take responsibility for anything illegal that’s distributed through their sites and preventing them from giving preference to their own services over those of rivals.
Whoever’s advice prevails, give Amazon credit for a rare feat. Antitrust concerns have united firebrand politicians on the left and right. The issue has spurred Sens. Warren, Mike Lee (R-Utah), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) into action.
During a confirmation hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he looks forward to working with Khan. The gesture was a rare endorsement for government intervention from the Texas senator.
As Warren said so many times during her unsuccessful bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, she has a plan. This time, it’s a plan to investigate and break up firms like Amazon. What’s more, Klobuchar and Hawley have both laid out their plans for action in their books on antitrust.
In her book Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age, Klobuchar blames Robert Bork’s actions in the 1970s and the conservative movement of the 1980s for creating the conditions that gave rise to modern monopolies.
Bork, whose Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1987, had argued that a primary purpose of antitrust action should be to lower consumer prices. In the 1980s, Reagan Republicans opposed government intervention in business in general.
Klobuchar offers 25 policy ideas to combat monopolies, including overturning Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court case that prohibits government from restricting political contributions by corporations, unions and other organizations.
Hawley writes for a right-wing audience in his book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, offering a “red meat” narrative centered on how big tech stifles conservative voices. It’s billed as “the book that big tech doesn’t want you to read,” yet it’s selling on Amazon. Go figure.
Hawley also alleges in the book that Amazon began “ripping off its own vendors by the late 2010s, according to the FTC.” Amazon gathers data about customers of third-party sellers who use its site and then capitalizes on that information by launching its own competing products. To many, that alleged activity lies at the core of the antitrust question about Amazon’s role in commerce.
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