House Democrats this week launched an opening salvo in their efforts to drum up support for a massive intervention into the economy.
Attacking tech companies for their supposedly anticompetitive actions, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law entirely failed to present compelling evidence of substantial consumer harm to justify the expansion of regulatory powers House Democrats are seeking.
Conservatives and progressives alike have plenty of grievances against large tech companies at the moment. While progressives seek to rein in what they view as monopolistic corporations, conservatives are angry at perceived censorship of conservative viewpoints. It’s a fertile environment for drastic changes that conservatives would later regret.
For example, progressives and conservatives often are united in their displeasure with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, though for nearly polar opposite reasons. The provision ensures that any media company, whether new media or traditional, is not held liable for the statements of commenter and users of its platform. Progressives dislike Section 230 because they believe it shields social media companies from having to regulate what they view as objectionable content, while conservatives believe it gives tech companies free rein to censor conservative opinions without consequences.
Obviously both can’t be right. And the result of a repeal of Section 230 would probably not end the way conservatives hope it would. Without Section 230 protecting social media companies from being held liable for opinions spread by users on its platforms, social media platforms would likely become far more censorious, erring on the side of caution by aggressively restricting any content that could potentially land them in legal hot water.
Then there’s the thrust of this week’s hearings, attacking tech companies from an antitrust perspective. Conservatives disgruntled with tech companies might be tempted to condone or even support antitrust actions against them, but this would be cutting off the nose to spite the face.
Generally speaking, usage of antitrust powers should be restricted to cases where there is significant consumer harm — after all, government picking winners and losers in the market is something best avoided. An industry that provides services no one could have dreamed of having access to two decades ago at no cost to consumers seems unlikely to qualify.
Attempts by progressives to point out “unfair” business practices likewise fall short. House Democrats routinely use phrases like “self-preferencing” and “gatekeeper platforms,” referring to tech companies putting their own content first on their platforms (i.e., Google showing Youtube results first for video searches) to disadvantage competition.
But this does not necessarily kneecap potential competitors. Video streaming platforms like Netflix and HBO create and promote their own content, listing original content early on its own platform. This in no way stops people from viewing the rest of the content they host. A requirement that Netflix present content purchased from other producers just as prominently as it presents Netflix original content would be arbitrary and unnecessary.
In fact, most tech company practices that progressives find objectionable are common in other industries as well. Amazon’s AmazonBasics products, usually offering an inexpensive alternative to other brands, is comparable to grocery stores that offer their own store brand products at a lower price. Few people have called for breaking up Costco and Kirkland, and in fact the percentage of own-brand sales on Amazon’s platform is substantially lower than many other big companies.
Conservatives should not be taken in by these specious arguments because they have other grievances with tech companies. Progressive “cures” would be far worse than any problems conservatives have identified.
Andrew Wilford is a policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to tax policy research and education at all levels of government.