FT: Letting the public decide is key to Big Tech regulation

February 5, 2023 Media

Complexity is often used to obfuscate. Industries like finance, pharmaceuticals and particularly technology are rife with examples. Just as programmers can encrypt code or strip out metadata to protect the workings of their intellectual property, so insiders — from technologists to economists to lawyers — can defend their business models by using industry jargon and Byzantine explanations of simple concepts in order to obscure things they may not want the public to understand.

That’s why it’s so important that in its second major antitrust case filed against Google, the US Department of Justice last month asked not only that the company break up its advertising business, but that a jury of the people decide whether it must do so. This is extremely unusual for antitrust cases, which are usually decided by a judge. It is a risky move, since it means that the DoJ’s antitrust division head, Jonathan Kanter, will have to deconstruct the online advertising auction business for lay people. But it’s also quite smart. The federal judges who hear such complex antitrust cases tend to be older, conservative types who are historically more likely to align themselves with large corporations.

But the current justice department, and the Biden White House in general, is working hard to avoid that kind of cognitive capture. The New Brandeis school of legal theory — of which Kanter, Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan and former White House antitrust adviser Tim Wu are part — is built on the idea that power exists in the political economy and it can’t be modelled algorithmically. To them, “antitrust law is something that belongs to the public, not judges or an elite legal fraternity”, says Matt Stoller, the director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project and author of Goliath, a history of monopoly power in the 20th century. There are, of course, risks to policy by populism. Look at Britain’s departure from the EU after the 2016 referendum, which has left the country poorer.

But that’s how democracy works. Allowing important decisions over key issues like corporate power and the rules of surveillance capitalism to be made by technocrats behind closed doors also carries dangers. The justice department is quite right that ordinary people should be able to hear the arguments.