Tall poppies should beware the scythe, and you don’t get taller poppies than Mark Zuckerberg. A committee of legislators from nine countries last week threatened Facebook with regulation after Mr. Zuckerberg failed to attend a hearing in London.
The Facebook founder sent a subordinate, Richard Allan, to suck up the criticism. Doubtless, Mr. Zuckerberg saw it as yet another politically motivated gesture by foreign governments, jealous of the power of U.S. multinationals. He is, of course, right about the motivation. But he is wrong to think he’s innocent and that the problem will go away. Facebook and other, so-called technology companies, Amazon and Google, should be scared.
The British Parliament has the social-media company in its sights and seized on company documents that purport to show a Facebook engineer had warned the company that a Russian IP address had been harvesting billions of data points from Facebook. The committee, which was made up of parliamentarians from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore, France, Belgium and Britain, called for a global system of internet governance. The Canadian representative, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, suggested: “The simplest form of regulation would be to break Facebook up or treat it as a utility.”
Meanwhile, Germany’s federal competition regulator is launching an investigation into Amazon, the largest online marketplace in Germany, after complaints from third-party sellers that their business was being hindered by Amazon’s dual role of retailer and operator of the marketplace. The European Commission’s competition watchdog is already investigating whether Amazon gains unfair advantage from the data it collects from transactions by sellers using Amazon’s marketplace.
Small wonder, you might think, that the colossal market power of the internet giants attracts scrutiny from regulators. What is extraordinary is the scrutiny, so far, is almost entirely from European antitrust regulators. The United States’ Congress and Federal Trade Commission are only just beginning to show concern about the way in which the internet giants can manipulate the markets in which they dominate.
The country that created antitrust law – the one that first recognized the tendency of large conglomerate enterprises, such as Standard Oil and AT&T, to suppress competition and engage in market abuse – is no longer in the business of cutting down tall poppies. In the United States, today, dominance per se is to be celebrated, (as long as it is American dominance). Foreign dominance in a business activity, especially when it is Chinese, is considered dubious, if not downright illegal. However, when U.S. companies achieve very high degrees of market control, such as Google’s domination of search and online advertising or Amazon’s dominance in bookselling, the prevailing view is that success should be rewarded.
Leaving aside the Trumpian suspicion of foreign manufacturing, U.S. antitrust law has for decades been shackled by a simplistic mantra: If prices are low or lower, what’s the problem? In other words, if Amazon can sell you a book at a lower price, who cares if there are no book shops or indeed any specialist retailer, and who cares if tumbleweeds are rolling through the malls?
Disruption is the official religion and the new gods are Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin and Mr. Zuckerberg. Surely, this is what capitalism ordered, goes the argument: new technology and business models kick out the old, delivering better and cheaper goods. And Mr. Zuckerberg would be right, except that we are told that the disruptors should not themselves be disrupted. Having created the new model economy, we are not allowed to touch it – not even government. The holy libertarian writ of creative destruction works only once: The stranglehold must not be broken. If you want to handle goods before you buy them, find a street market somewhere in Asia.
When did competition mean support for an unregulated utility, a conduit for commerce that is not only subject to no restraint but can freely compete with users of the conduit while at the same time mining their commercial data? When did competition mean the theft of intellectual property?
None of these questions has troubled the dominant thinkers in U.S. competition law. Thankfully, a young maverick American legal scholar, Lina Khan, is getting a lot of attention for suggesting, in a Yale Law Journal article last year, that online platforms are the new railroads, akin to the market infrastructure that supported Standard Oil’s monopoly.
Those jurists and economists who sneer might consider where the United States would be if Standard Oil and Ma Bell were still intact and controlling, respectively, oil supply and telecommunications. Shale oil would still be locked underground and I don’t think Google would be a thing.
Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist and freelance consultant based in Britain