Like many Americans these days, my husband and I stream our television watching. But we do watch the news on traditional broadcast television, and lately, we’ve been treated to one of those periodic political non-messages, urging us to call on our Congressperson to oppose a bill that “will make us less safe.”
No details, of course, about the bill–only the urgent need to oppose it. It’s a bad bill, and we know it’s bad because the people paying for the advertisement say so.
So what is really going on–other than another example of just how stupid the sponsors of the ad think we are? (Admission: I worry that they may be right about that…) Tom Wheeler of the Brookings Institution has the details.
“A multimillion-dollar campaign is pushing Dems to ditch antitrust reform,” The Washington Post headlined. Of the $36 million spent to date, The Wall Street Journal reports the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) has spent the most—over $24 million. The CCIA commercials reportedly focused on the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. CCIA represents companies such as Amazon, Apple, Meta/Facebook, and Alphabet/Google.
“Don’t Break What Works” is the theme of the CCIA advertisements. “Congress has plans that could stop progress in its tracks, breaking the products and services you love,” the commercial warns. The campaign targets S. 2992, the bipartisan American Innovation and Choice Act that would empower the government to challenge self-preferencing practices of the online platforms if they are determined to be anticompetitive.
Of course, you would never guess that the bill you are being told to oppose had anything to do with anti-trust; no, the voice-over tells us it’s about national security. The advertisement I heard–paid for by something called the Consumer Technology Association– insists that the legislation is a “national security threat.” It references the Russian attack on Ukraine and “cyber warfare against the U.S.,” and then asks, “Why is Congress considering legislation that makes us less safe?” The commercial doesn’t make reference to a specific piece of legislation, but it concludes with a dark warning: “Don’t break American technology when we need it most.”
The Brookings report details other, similar ads. Among them:
Another advertising campaign is being run by a heretofore unknown organization named American Edge Project. These commercials also fail to mention what legislation concerns them, how those concerns could be fixed, or how the horrors they warn of could actually happen.
“I don’t understand why some in Congress want to take away the technology we use every day,” the owner of a small plumbing business worries in an American Edge ad. Lamenting “this political campaign against American technology,” Larry Melton of Gilbert, Arizona, warns, “our leaders need to strengthen, not weaken, American technology.”
In another advertisement from the group, small business owner Renee Carlton of Corinth, Mississippi, warns that “some politicians are pushing new laws that will weaken American technology.” The result, she cautions, “will make small businesses dependent on China for the technology we use every day.” Ms. Carlton concludes, “I have a message for Congress. Don’t weaken American technology.”
What will this mysterious bill really do? According to ARStechnica,
The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, cosponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), would limit Big Tech firms’ ability to “unfairly preference” their own products and services. For example, under the proposed bill, Amazon couldn’t boost search rankings of its private-label products, and Apple and Google couldn’t do the same for their apps in their app stores
These Big Tech platforms can be immensely useful, but they also have a dark side.
By working both sides of a market, platform owners have unrivaled insights into both buyers and sellers, giving them an advantage when selling their own products and services. In some cases, that can harm consumers. In others, it can harm sellers. So far, antitrust law has struggled to address all the ways that dominant platforms skew markets.
As Klobuchar has pointed out, current law doesn’t address these problems, because existing antitrust measures were written before these platforms came on the scene. Anti-trust laws haven’t been meaningfully updated since the birth of the Internet.
The merits and concerns relevant to this legislation have been debated in Congress, and the bill is supported by the Justice Department. (DOJ’s analysis determined that the legislation would “supplement the existing antitrust laws in preventing the largest digital companies from abusing and exploiting their dominant positions to the detriment of competition and the competitive process.”)
There’s a reason those advertisements don’t tell us that what they oppose is an anti-trust measure that would hamper Big Tech’s ability to exploit dominant market positions. Most Americans wouldn’t see that as an attack on national security, because it isn’t.