Bloomberg: The hipsters of antitrust

August 19, 2020 Media
Hey it’s Josh.The main work of the Democratic Party’s virtual convention is to officially choose its presidential nominee, but another part of the quadrennial festivities is to approve a party platform. A draft version of the document is already public, and it’s an interesting testament to how much the party’s thinking on tech has changed since the last time the Democrats went through this exercise in the waning days of the Obama administration.
In short, the Democrats have become the party of hipster antitrust. For decades, antitrust enforcers have centered the consumer welfare standard, which defined price increases as the only valid focus of antitrust action. Over the last several years a new school of thought has taken hold, mostly in liberal circles, which takes a much dimmer view of market consolidation, and wants to update antitrust laws and enforce them in much more aggressive ways.
The Democrats, in their 2020 platform, say an administration led by Joe Biden would instruct regulators to also “consider potential effects of future mergers on the labor market, on low-income and marginalized communities, and on racial equity.” They say a new administration would review questionable deals the Trump administration has approved, and call on the federal government to consider breaking up companies that use their market power in anticompetitive ways.
This is a big swing against Big Tech, if not an entirely surprising one — a number of prominent Democrats have adopted these positions in recent years. The platform also shows an evolution on privacy. Four years ago, the section on privacy dealt primarily with government surveillance; this year the party makes specific proposals on privacy legislation aimed at curbing abuses by private businesses. There is also mention of the responsibility of social media companies to confront disinformation, a word which did not appear in the 2016 platform.
The hypothetical Biden administration has already begun to assemble people to advise it on policy matters, and the group has included both hawks and doves on antitrust and tech policy. The personnel choices a Biden administration makes will be more important than the policy priorities it has articulated in the platform, according to Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project. But Miller, who has participated in the campaign’s committee on the issue and is a prominent voice in the movement for a more aggressive approach to antitrust, also is confident it will be hard for a new Democratic administration to stop the momentum. “In the last four years I’ve been working on this, I keep thinking that it has hit its peak and will calm down,” she says. “That’s never been true.” —Joshua Brustein