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Boom and Bust | Australia vs. Facebook

Tony looks at who won the Australia vs. Facebook saga and why it matters. He is joined by David Clement and Dr. Sinclair Davidson.

Watch the video here.

Facebook, Australia and the pitfalls of online regulation

“Facebook has re-friended Australia.” Those were the words of Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to a gaggle of reporters in Canberra this week, in an ever-so-slightly smug declaration of victory in the regulatory battle between his government and the embattled social media giant.

His statement came after Facebook, having kicked up an almighty storm – and generated a great deal of bad press for itself in the process – eventually gave in and backed down from its sudden ban of all news content for Australian users. It followed Google’s example and entered into negotiations with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, among others, begrudgingly agreeing to pay to host their content on its platform, as mandated by the new Australian law.

This situation is profoundly troubling. The core of the dispute is the new law spelling out how tech giants like Facebook and Google, which host external news links on their platforms, must negotiate with the providers of that content.

Anybody can see that the idea of government-mandated negotiation doesn’t make much logical sense. If two consenting parties have a mutually-beneficial agreement where one facilitates the sharing of the other’s content, where is the role of the government to step in and demand that money changes hands?

It’s not clear what problem the Australian Government believes is being solved here. It has intervened in the market arbitrarily, making one side very happy and the other very miserable. But to what end? Worryingly, this appears to be just the latest front in a troubling new trend of governments arbitrarily meddling in an industry where innovation and productivity are booming. Sadly, governments are often inclined to do this.

California, for instance, recently won the right in court to implement its harsh net neutrality rules, the first state to come close to replicating the ill-fated far-reaching Obama-era law. Meanwhile, the European Union has declared its intention to keep tabs on big tech with a raft of new policy ideas, including annual check-ins with the European Commission about what steps companies are taking to “tackle illegal and harmful content”.

There is no easy answer to the question of how we should go about regulating the online market. The UK Government is at something of a crossroads in this area. It is currently consulting on the parameters of its new Digital Markets Unit (DMU) with the existing Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

When considering the role of the DMU, the British Government would do well to learn from the mistakes of others from around the world and seek to prioritise the interests of consumers, rather than coming down rigidly on one side of the fence and cowing to the demands of one enormous lobbying operation or another, as the Australian Government appears to have done.

The DMU, in the words of its architects and proponents, will be “a pro-competition regime”, which will mean that “consumers will be given more choice and control over how their data is used and small businesses will be able to better promote their products online”. Those stated aims – making life easier for users and paving the way for the Steve Jobs of tomorrow – seem wholly positive.

But the Government briefing also says that the DMU will implement “a new statutory code of conduct” in order to “help rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms”. It is too early to say whether our Government is planning to go down the same road as Australia’s, but that rhetoric sounds ominous, to say the least.

There is certainly a vacancy for the DMU to fill, but the underdog it should be propping up is not Rupert Murdoch. There is a difficult balance to be struck between maintaining an environment where the existing tech giants are able to continue innovating and elevating our standard of living, while also fostering a truly competitive environment by removing obstacles for their smaller – but growing – competitors, along with new start-ups. That is the fine line the Government must tread.

Originally published here.

Dowden’s latest task? Regulating the internet. Here’s what Australia can teach us about that challenge.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.

Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.

The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.

In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.

Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.

Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.

Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.

Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.

The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.

Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.

That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.

The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.

As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.

Originally published here.

The impending war with big tech

The last few weeks have seen a substantial ramping up of rhetoric from Westminster towards big tech. Facebook’s dramatic show of power against – and subsequent capitulation to – the Australian government over its new law obliging it to pay news outlets to host their content made for gripping viewing, and it has since become clear that senior ministers across the British government were tuning in to the action.

Matt Hancock came bursting out of the blocks to declare himself a ‘great admirer’ of countries which have proposed laws forcing tech giants to pay for journalism. Rishi Sunak has been bigging-up this year’s G7 summit, which will be held in Cornwall. From the way he is talking, it sounds like he is preparing to lead an army of finance ministers from around the world into battle with Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden, the cabinet minister with responsibility for media and technology, indicated that he has been chatting to his Australian counterparts to learn more about the thinking behind their policymaking process. He followed that up with a series of stark and very public warnings to the businesses themselves,promising to “keep a close eye” on Facebook and Twitter, voicing his “grave concern” over the way big tech companies are operating and threatening sanctions if they step out of line.

This one-way war of words comes against the backdrop of a menacing new regulatory body slowly looming into view. The Digital Markets Unit, a quango which is set to form part of the existing Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), will be the chief weapon in the government’s armoury. As things stand, we know very little about what it is intended to achieve.

Big tech in its current form is a young industry, still struggling with teething problems as it learns how to handle owning all the information in the world. There are plenty of areas where Facebook, Google, Amazon and countless others are arguably falling short in their practices, from users’ privacy to threats to journalists, which Dowden and others have picked up on.

But the natural instinct of state actors to step in has the potential to be cataclysmically damaging. The government is running out of patience with the free market and seems poised to intervene. Countless times, haphazard central policy has quashed innovation and sent private money tumbling out of the country. Against the backdrop of the forthcoming corporation tax rise, there is a fine balance to strike between effective regulation and excessive state interference.

The nature of government interventions is that they block innovation, and therefore progress. Superfluous regulation is like a dazed donkey milling about in the middle of the road, bringing the traffic to a halt. Of course, the donkey is then given a charity collection bucket and the power to oblige passers-by to contribute a slice of their income for the privilege of driving society forwards, generating unfathomable wealth and providing us all with access to free services which have improved our quality of life beyond measure.

As the government ponders the appropriate parameters of the new Digital Markets Unit and seeks to place arbitrary limits on what big tech companies can do for the first time in the history of their existence, it should consider users’ interests first. There is a strong case to be made for shoring up the rights of individuals and cracking down more harshly on abuse and other worrying trends. But let’s not fall into the same trap as our cousins Down Under in making online services more expensive to use and passing those costs down to consumers.

As the much-fabled ‘post-Brexit Global Britain’ begins to take shape, we have a valuable opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world on how to go about regulating the technology giants. The standards we will have to meet to do that are not terribly high. In essence, all the government needs to do is avoid the vast, swinging, ham-fisted meddling which has so often characterised attempts at regulation in the past and Britain can become something of a world leader in this field.

Originally published here.

Is this North Carolina Congressman hawking Bitcoin?

Sometime last week, Neeraj K. Agrawal, the communications director for the DC-based cryptocurrency think tank Coin Center, tweeted a link to an empty website: whitehouse.gov/bitcoin.pdf.

The idea he was trying to convey, in Internet speak, is that hopefully, one day we can look forward to the day when the Bitcoin whitepaper would be hosted on the White House’s website.

That would signal that the executive branch has endorsed elements of the cryptocurrency, and hosted the fundamental founding document to build confidence in the government using Bitcoin as a unit of currency.

That’s futuristic, crypto-fueled optimism that was nothing but a cheeky tweet in that moment.

Taking that to the next level, tech investor and entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan put forward a challenge: which forward-thinking country or US state would host the Bitcoin white paper on their main domain?

Enter North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry.

U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC)

Hailing from Gastonia, a town I once worked in as a newspaper reporter, McHenry represents the 10th district in the northwestern part of the state, home to NASCAR drivers, the mighty Catawba River, and stretching to the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains.

He once represented part of Gaston County in the State House and was later elected to Congress as one of the youngest congressmen in 2004.

As the ranking member on the Financial Services Committee, McHenry has often been involved in regulatory debates and discussions on cryptocurrencies and financial projects, including Facebook’s Libra project.

At least in previous statements and letters, McHenry usually joined hands with his Democratic colleagues to oppose any competition to the US dollar, as we’ve noted in past press releases.

However, it seems McHenry is changing his tune on the future of innovation in the cryptocurrency space.

On Wednesday, he took on the challenge originally posted by Agrawal and followed by Srinivasan: he posted the Bitcoin whitepaper to his own website.

Not only that, but he stated that “policymakers should be on the side of innovation and ingenuity, which are vital to American competitiveness,” and urged his colleagues to join him.

Is this North Carolina Republican Congressman hawking Bitcoin? It seems the answer is yes.

Looking into it more, he’s grown more bullish on Bitcoin and tech-related financial services in the last two years and even clarified his position on why projects like Libra do not represent a true cryptocurrency.

Appearing on series of podcasts, including one with fellow Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw, McHenry has been more vocal on why Bitcoin’s technology is like nothing before, and in fact, represents the future of financial and digital services.

And top it off — he posted the Bitcoin whitepaper on the congressional web server!

If McHenry’s statements are true, and if he is using his position as a Financial Services committee member to advance those ideas, I think we may have a consumer champion congressman to follow in the next two years.

As a fellow North Carolinian and advocate for consumer-friendly policies, I have been critical toward McHenry’s various positions in the past, specifically on legitimizing financial services for cannabis-related companies.

I believe the exact tagline I used was “The North Carolina Republican singlehandedly blocking progress on cannabis banking“.

Obviously, McHenry’s ideas and policies are more nuanced and deserve a closer look. I look forward to him expounding on that much more. So while we may not agree on cannabis banking, there still could be much to agree on with the congressman.

If more politicians in DC and various statehouses approached this issue like McHenry, perhaps our governments would be better vehicles for fostering innovation and helping grow consumer choice.

Kudos to you, Rep. McHenry.

Yaël Ossowski is deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center

Latest round of online deplatforming shows why we need increased competition and decentralization

Another week means another politically-charged rampage of deplatforming of social media profiles and entire social media networks.

Following the storming of the U.S. Capitol by some of his supporters, President Trump was promptly suspended from Twitter and Facebook and later dozens of Internet services including Shopify and Twitch.

Even the image-sharing site Pinterest, famous for recipes and DIY project presentations, has banned Trump and any mention of contesting the 2020 Election. He’ll have to go without sourdough recipes and needlework templates once he’s out of office.

Beyond Trump, entire social media networks have also been put in the crosshairs following the troubling incursion on Capitol Hill. The conservative platform Parler, a refuge for social media dissidents, has since had its app pulled from the Google and Apple stores and had their hosting servers suspended by Amazon’s web service company AWS.

This pattern of removing unsavory profiles or websites isn’t just a 2021 phenomenon. The whistleblower website Wikileaks – whose founder Julian Assange remains in prison without bail in the UK awaiting extradition to the United States – was similarly removed from Amazon’s servers in 2012, as well as blacklisted by Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and their DNS provider. Documents reveal both public and private pressure by then U.S. senator and Intelligence Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman was instrumental in choking Wikileaks off from these services.

Then it was politicians pressuring companies to silence a private organization. Now, it’s private organizations urging companies to silence politicians.

However the pendulum swings, it’s entirely reasonable for companies that provide services to consumers and institutions to respond quickly to avoid risk. Whether it’s due to governmental decree or public backlash, firms must respond to incentives that ensure their success and survival.

Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Gab, or Parler, they can only exist and thrive if they fulfill the wishes and demands of their users, and increasingly to the political and social pressures placed on them by a cacophony of powerful forces.

It’s an impossible tightrope.

It is clear that many of these companies have and will continue to make bad business decisions based on either politics or perception of bias. They are far from perfect.

The only true way we can ensure a healthy balance of information and services provided by these companies to their consumers is by promoting competition and decentralization.

Having diverse alternative services to host servers, provide social networks, and allow people to communicate remains in the best interest of all users and consumers.

Such a mantra is difficult to hold in today’s hostile ideological battleground inflated by Silicon Valley, Washington, and hostile actors in Bejing and Moscow, but it is necessary.

In the realm of policy, we should be wary of proposed solutions that aim to cut off some services at the expense of others.

Repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, for example, would be incredibly harmful to users and firms alike. If platforms become legally liable for user content, it would essentially turn innovative tech companies into risk-averting insurance companies that occasionally offer data services. That would be terrible for innovation and user experience.

And considering the politically charged nature of our current discourse, anyone could find a reason to cancel you or an organization you hold dear – meaning you’re more at risk for being deplatformed.

At the same time, axing Section 230 would empower large firms and institutions that already have the resources to manage content policing and legal issues at scale, locking out many start-ups and aspiring competitors who otherwise would have been able to thrive.

When we think of the towering power of Big Tech and Big Government, some things can be true all at the same time. It can be a bad idea to use antitrust law to break up tech firms as it will deprive consumers of choice, just as these companies are guilty of making bad business decisions that will hurt their user base. How we respond to that will determine how consumers will continue to be able to use online services going forward.

All the while, every individual Internet user and organization has it in their power to use competitive and diverse services. Anyone can start up an instance of Mastodon (as I have done), a decentralized micro-blogging service, host a private web server on a Raspberry Pi (coming soon), or accept Bitcoin rather than credit cards.

Thanks to competition and innovation, we have consumer choice. The question is, though, if we’re courageous enough to use them.

Yaël Ossowski is deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center.

Antitrust tech hearings dig for consumer harm but come up short

Armed with face masks and fresh customer complaints, members of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law convened both virtually and in-person on Thursday, for the first of many hearings on competition in the tech sector.

It was a six-hour marathon of gobbledygook legal turns of phrase and static-prone troubleshooting for lawmakers.

The witnesses were CEOs from some of the four largest companies in America: Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Tim Cook of Apple, and Sundar Pichai of Google.

Together, these companies serve billions of global consumers for a variety of needs, and have become very rich by doing so. They employ millions of people, make up big portions of the American economy, and have been the trailblazers for innovation in virtually every free nation.

It is also true that they’ve made many mistakes, errors in judgment, and have made it easy to be bashed by all sides.

Despite that, these companies are true American success stories. And that’s not even considering the industrious biographies of their CEOs on the witness stand: an immigrant from India; the son of a teenage mother and immigrant stepfather; a college dropout; and a gay southern man shunned by the Ivy League. Each of them is a self-made millionaire or billionaire in their own right.

But in the context of this hearing, they were America’s villains.

The potshots in the hearing came from both Democrat and Republican congressmen, each using their bully pulpits to reel out various accusations and grievances on the representatives from Big Tech. But lost in all of this was the consumer.

The scene was analogous to George Orwell’s Two Minute Hate on repeat, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein replaced by a WebEx video call on full screen with smiling CEOs surrounded by the furniture in their home offices.

For Democrats, these companies have grown far too large using unscrupulous business practices, beating competitors with lower prices, better service, speed, and slick branding – allowing them to purchase or bully their competition.

For Republicans, it’s all about the bias against conservatives online, facilitated by the thorny content moderation that selectively edits which social media posts are allowed to stand.

What’s missing from this story so far? American consumers.

The justification of the hearing was to determine whether these companies have abused the trust of the public and whether consumers have been harmed as a result of their actions.

But more often than not, questions from committee members hinged on the and “business acumen” of decisions taken within the company, classifying rudimentary strategy decisions as illegal and hostile moves.

Platforms Opening to Third-Party Sellers

An example is Rep. Pramila Jayapal, of Washington State. She represents the district where Amazon was founded by Jeff Bezos. She condemned Amazon for collecting data on third-party sellers who are able to use Amazon’s website to sell products.

“You have access to data that your competitors do not have. So you might allow third-party sellers onto your platform, but if you’re continuously monitoring the data to make sure that they’re never going to get big enough to compete with you, that is the concern that the committee actually has,” said Jayapal.

Here, we’re talking about Amazon’s online platform, which sells millions of goods. Two decades ago, Amazon opened up its platform to merchants for a small fee. It was a win for sellers, who could now have easier access to customers, and it was a win for customers who now can buy more products on Amazon, regardless of who the seller was.

When Amazon sees that certain product categories are very popular, they will sometimes make their own, knowing they have the infrastructure to deliver products at high satisfaction. This brand is called Amazon Basics, encompassing everything from audio cables to coolers and batteries.

Rep. Jayapal says that by collecting data on those merchants in their store, Amazon is effectively stealing information…that sellers voluntarily give in exchange for using Amazon’s storefront.

However, the end result of the competition between Amazon’s third-party sellers and Amazon’s own products (on Amazon’s platform) is something that is better for the consumer: there is more competition, more choice, and more high-quality options to choose from. This elevates the experience for a consumer and helps save them money. This is far from harm.

The same can be said of Apple and its App Store, which came under fire from the chairman of the committee, Rep. David Cicilline. He said Apple was charging developers who use the App Store “exorbitant rents” that veered toward “highway robbery”.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was quick to retort by pointing out that the App Store is a platform for its own apps, but it also allows third-party developers to use that store for a fee. This is an entirely new market space that never existed before Apple opened it, and thus is a net gain for any developer who uses the store, and benefits consumers who click and download even more.

Business As Usual

Throughout the hearing, public officials pointed to internal documents as proof of the malfeasance of the tech firms. The documents were unearthed by the committee and contained emails and memos on mergers, acquisitions, and business practices from all four tech firms.

The Financial Times classified these documents as evidence that the companies “chased dominance and sought to protect it.”

Rep. Jared Nadler of New York chased down Mark Zuckerberg for his decision to purchase the photo-app Instagram back in 2012, calling the move “outright illegal” because he believed Facebook bought it to “essentially put them out of business.”

Today, Instagram is an incredibly popular app that has grown to half a billion users, thanks to Facebook’s investments, talent, and integration. It’s made consumers very happy, and has become an attractive product for advertisers as well. Again, no harm for the consumer.

Pro-Consumer, not Pro or Anti-business

One of the most astute lines from the hearing came from the sole representative from North Dakota.

“Usually in our quest to regulate big companies, we end up hurting small companies more,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong. Indeed.

And add to that the eventual scenario whereby only the highly connected and vastly wealthy tech companies will be able to comply with stringent regulation from Washington. That’s not what consumers want, and it’s not what Americans want either.

If Congress aims to use antitrust power to break up or heavily regulate the enterprises built by Google, Amazon, Facebook, or Apple, it won’t be done lightly. It would likely leave a lot of damage in its wake for small and medium-sized businesses, many of whom rely on these major firms to conduct their business. In turn, consumers rely on those companies for products and services.

Each of these companies represent a case study in innovation, entrepreneurship, and giving the people what they want to create a huge network of consumers. There’s a lot to learn there.

Instead of using the law to break up companies, what if we learned from their success to empower more consumers?

Politician-Endorsed Social Media Bans Are Dangerous Territory

When it comes to social media, US politicians are rhetoric-heavy on banning policial ads. But that would mean sweeping consequences for all types of civil society groups, community organizations, and small businesses. That affects billions of consumers worldwide.

Considering Sen. Warren is an advocate of such bans, yet decries when they are applied to groups she likes, has she seen the light? Also featuring commentary on Mark Zuckerberg’s latest interview and views on free expression.

Consumer Choice Center Deputy Director Yaël Ossowski interviewed on The Big Talker 107.7FM with host Joe Catenacci.

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Democratic Presidential Debate: How did consumer choice fare?

With the 2020 presidential race running on full steam, 12 Democratic candidates for president participated in yet another televised debate last night in Ohio.

Considering consumers will be directly impacted by many of the policies mentioned, here’s a breakdown by categories mentioned by the candidates and our own spin on how it relates to consumer choice.

HEALTHCARE

Mayor Pete Buttigieg makes some good points on keeping competition for healthcare insurance, blasting Sen. Elizabeth Warren for not being straight on whether taxes will go up with her Medicare For All plan.

Buttigieg: “No plan has been laid to explain how a multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare For All plan that Sen. Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.”

He prefers “Medicare For All Who Want It,” continuing to allow private healthcare insurance and a public option for those who want it. As we’ve written before, more choice in healthcare is what should be championed.

And Buttigieg had another great line:

“I don’t think the American people are wrong when they say that what they want is a choice…I don’t understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable coverage to everybody is to obliterate private plans, kicking 150 million Americans off their insurance in four short years.”

Warren, on the other hand, calls her plan the “gold standard,” again stating that while taxes on the wealthy will go up, costs for middle-class families will go down. Here, she’s taking an objective view of the total costs to families, mixing taxes and healthcare expenses. Of course, that’s very convoluted, and doesn’t leave much clarity to consumers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is more honest: “I do think it’s appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up…but the tax increase they pay will be substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar: “We owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice…we need to have a public option.” She calls Medicare For All a “pipe dream,” calling for an expansion of Obamacare.

Former Vice President Joe Biden: “The [Medicare For All] plan is going cost at least $30 trillion over 10 years.” He similarly wants to just expand Obamacare.

Overall, it seems there is still a lot of support for competition in healthcare, and that is to be celebrated. Medicare For All, which would remove all aspects of competition and free choice, only got moderate support by all except Sanders and Warren.

CANNABIS LEGALIZATION

The idea of a smart cannabis policy was quite absent from the debate. That’s quite a mishap, considering the ongoing issue of federal cannabis prohibition while select states continue with their own version of legalization.

The only two mentions came in the context of the opioid crisis, by Sen. Cory Booker and Andrew Yang. They only mentioned that cannabis could be used as an alternative for those addicted to opioids.

What about the very real fight to have smart cannabis policy implemented at the federal level? We hope this is covered more in future debates.

AUTOMATION

The idea of a federal job guarantee was fresh on the lips of Bernie Sanders, but that was shot down by most people on the stage.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang hit it out of the park with this one:

“Most Americans do not want to work for the federal government. And saying that is the vision of the economy of the 21st Century is, to me, is not a vision that most Americans would not embrace.”

He promotes his Freedom Dividend, offering $1,000 a month to every American as a replacement for welfare, as a way to boost consumer spending, and help workers who lose their jobs due to automation.

There is much that could be written about whether or not this universal basic income would be good for consumers, but it is at least a different policy debated by mainstream presidential candidates on a national state.

TECH REGULATION

There was much room for beating up tech companies that offer great services for ordinary consumers. That includes services like Facebook, Amazon, and Google. We’ve written about the trust-busters and their desire to usurp consumer choice before.

Warren led the salvo, using a quip about separating the umpire and the baseball team as some kind of strange metaphor about Amazon selling its own products on its website. Enter her zinger: “We need to enforce our anti-trust laws, break up these giant companies that are dominating big tech, big pharma, all of them.” Pretty clear there.

Yang: “Using a 20th-century anti-trust framework will not work. We need new solutions and a new toolkit…the best way to fight back against tech companies is to say that our data is our property. Our data is worth more than oil.” He made the case for his Value Added Tax on digital services as well, which we’ll examine below.

Sen. Kamala Harris pleaded her fellow candidates to support her call to get Twitter to ban President Donald Trump from Twitter but got no love.

The person who made the most consumer-friendly response about tech regulation was, surprisingly, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

“Treat them as the publishers as we are. But I don’t think it’s the role of the president to specify which companies will be broken. That’s something Donald Trump has done…we need tough rules of the road, protect your personal information, privacy, and data, and be fearless in the face of these tech giants.”

He was one of the only people in the debate to mention consumer privacy and pushed back against trust-busting, and should hence get a pat on the back.

TRADE

No Democrat mentioned the trade wars, the harmful impacts of tariffs, and the promise of free trade. Rather, trade got mostly slammed.

Elizabeth Warren: “The principal reason [for losing jobs] is trade. Giant multinational companies have been calling the shots on trade…they are loyal only to their bottom line. I have a plan to fix that: accountable capitalism.”

Warren’s version of accountable capitalism:

  • 40% of corporate boards should be elected by the employees
  • We should give unions more power when they negotiate

Again, no mention of the USMCA free trade agreement, no talk of free trade with the European Union or any other countries.

Sen. Cory Booker agrees that unions should be empowering to offer Americans a “living wage.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard says universal basic income is a “good idea to help provide that security so that people can have the freedom to make the kinds of choices that they want to see.” It’s not a total endorsement for freedom of choice for consumers, but at least invokes a good notion of free choice. Not sure her take on global free trade.

TAXES

Though the candidates mentioned many new taxes they’d endorse, the one that concerns consumers the most would be the idea of a VAT – Value Added Tax.

Andrew Yang mentioned that instead of Warren’s wealth tax, he’d pass a VAT of 10%, like in European countries to help fund his Freedom Dividend. That would be akin to a national sales tax, but allowing the opportunity for businesses to claim this amount back if it’s a legitimate business expense, and the same for tourists visiting on vacation.

On its face, an American VAT would raise costs for ordinary consumers and be regressive. As the Tax Policy Foundation notes, this tax would have a disproportionate impact on lower-income households, as they tend to spend more of their income on consumption. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich made the same point while watching the debate:

Many states and municipalities have their own sales taxes or none at all, and that does impact consumers who spend more. But a move to a national VAT would mean higher prices for ordinary goods and services for all consumers.

PROTECTING CONSUMERS

Really the only direct mention came when Warren tooted her own horn on her consumer protection agency.

“Following the Financial Crash of 2008, I had an idea for a consumer agency (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) that would keep giant banks from cheating people. And all of the Washington insiders and strategic geniuses said “don’t even try” because you won’t get it passed…it has now forced big banks to return more than $12 billion directly to the people they cheated.”

The Trump Administration has taken the CFPB to court over whether or not it is constitutional, and Republicans have consistently attacked the organization since its founding during the Obama Administration.

“Make no mistake, it does little to protect consumers and was created during the Obama administration to enforce burdensome regulations which have stunted economic growth and negatively impacted small businesses and consumers,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, who has introduced legislation to abolish the agency.

“America has three branches of government – not four,” said Senator Sasse, who has also co-sponsored the bill. “Protecting consumers is good, but consolidating power in the hands of Washington elites is harmful. This powerful and unaccountable bureau is an affront to the principle that the folks who write laws must be accountable to the people.”

CONCLUSION

There wasn’t much mention of the impact the debated policies would have on consumers, and unfortunately no mention of free trade and lifestyle freedom.

Regardless, on healthcare and tech regulation, there were good debates and some good principles that should be championed, but still, more could have been mentioned on ways to promote innovation, privacy, science, and consumer choice.

Facebook Trustbusters Are Motivated by Partisan Politics, Not Concern for the Consumer

By Yaël Ossowski

Channeling the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt and nostalgia for the early 20th century Progressive Era, the latest bad idea being circulated in elite circles is to use the trust-busting power of the federal government to break up the social network Facebook.

The idea has been promoted by the likes of Democratic politicians like senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and also Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz. Even Chris Hughes, an original Facebook co-founder, has hitched his wagon to the idea, as expressed in his now infamous New York Times op-ed.

But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not dealing with a corporate monopoly akin to Standard Oil, U.S. Steel or even Microsoft. We’re talking about social media websites and services available on the open web.

No one is forced to use these platforms, and are very free and cheaply able to create their own. This is not a monopoly in the literal sense, or even a figurative one.

There are already plenty of competing social networks that people use for a host of different services. Whether it’s Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest or Twitter, there are plenty of services where people connect with friends and share information. Facebook just happens to have “clued in” to the needs of the greatest numbers of consumers. Does that warrant government intervention? No.

Let’s be clear: the internet is the ultimate playground for consumer choice. Government attempts to intervene and regulate based on political considerations, however, will only restrict consumer choice and deprive us of what we’ve thus far enjoyed.

No doubt, some actions by the company have been egregious and they’ll be rightfully punished. The Federal Trade Commission’s expected $5 billion fine on Facebook because of its mishandling of data and consumer privacy is a good first step.

But the movement calling on federal regulators to use their power to break up the company reeks of partisan politics.

Democrats are incensed that users on the platform may have been persuaded to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election due to an impressive outreach effort by the Trump campaign (not to mention alleged Russian front groups). Republicans, on the other hand, decry Facebook’s liberal-heavy moderation that has specifically targeted conservative pages and posts. Its censoring of a post citing the Declaration of Independence because it was considered “hate speech” is just one example.

But from what we’ve learned from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and other tech elites, banning individuals or pages are highly complex decisions made by thousands of moderators who follow an internal set of guidelines, whether at YouTube, Twitter or Facebook. The investigative article published on the Verge about Facebook moderators’ workload and stress while removing bad content from the platform speaks to that.

Despite these follies, the overwhelming majority of users are happy with their profiles. They’re able to connect with friends and family around the world, and share images and posts that spark conversations. Millions of small businesses, artists, and even news websites are dependent on these platforms to make their living.

Using the force of government to break apart businesses because of particular stances or actions they’ve taken, all legal under current law, is highly vindictive and will restrict the ability for ordinary people like myself or millions of other consumers to enjoy the platforms for which we voluntarily signed up.

We should hold these platforms accountable when they make mistakes, but not tip our hand to invite the federal government to determine which sites or platforms we can click on.

The government’s role is not to pick winners and losers. It’s to ensure our rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, as the Declaration of Independence states. Let’s not use temporary partisan politics to determine the fate of online services and platforms from which we all enjoy and benefit.

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