Antitrust Group Not Hopeful Trump Can Tackle Big Tech Issues

The American Antitrust Institute doesn't have a lot of hope for the Trump Administration addressing concerns about whether Big Tech companies buying up potential competitors is an antitrust problem. 

Both the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission have been looking into how Big Tech got that way, and whether any anticompetitive red flags were missed in the series of mergers, often with smaller start-ups fueled by venture capital, that allowed edge providers to become mammoth players in the U.S. and world economy.  

In a new analysis, "Antitrust Enforcement and Competition Policy in the U.S.," which suggests the Trump Administration antitrust enforcement has been lax, the institute said the urge to break up or regulate Big Tech has been a reaction to Trump Administration antitrust inaction, and that without aggressive action using a variety of antitrust enforcement tools, neither Congress not the Administration are likely to address concerns about the size and power of Big Tech. 

Related: DOJ Tweeks Merger Review Process 

It suggests that had the Administration had a more balanced antitrust toolkit that included competition, regulatory, interoperability, and intellectual property policies, the blunter instrument of breakup might not take such a potentially "outsized" role to solving the "economic, social, and even political problems" the institute concedes are raised by digital tech companies. 

Related: FTC Wades Into Big Tech 

"The rare historical breakup remedies fashioned through antitrust law were applied in sectors that are very different from the digital ecosystems of today," the report concludes, "which feature strong network effects and a role of data in fueling connectivity across markets." 

But the institute doesn't see the Trump Administration wielding that blunt instrument anytime soon.  

"[T]here is no indication that the Trump enforcement agencies are willing to revisit prior merger decisions and challenge consummated mergers of digital technology companies where post-merger harm is evident," it said. 

To be fair, the Trump administration has signaled it would take a retrospective look at some of the deals that may have passed under its antitrust radar as Big Tech got bigger, just to make sure they did not build those collective trillion-dollar market caps via anticompetitive means. 

For example, the Federal Trade Commission has sent "special order" information requests to five of the biggest tech players — Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft— seeking information and documents to help it review the "terms, scope, structure, and purpose of transactions that each company consummated between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2019." 

The institute said there needs to be teeth behind any such review. 

"Without a more aggressive enforcement approach to reviewing consummated acquisitions of potential rivals in digital technology and other sectors, the focus on breakup proposals is likely to intensify," it concludes, "neither antitrust enforcement nor legislative action on this front therefore appears capable of effectively addressing concerns, with potentially adverse consequences for a coherent public policy approach."  

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.