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Why Consumers Should Oppose the Latest Senate Antitrust Actions

By Yaël Ossowski

The U.S. Senate is considering two antitrust bills by Sen. Amy Klobuchar that would significantly harm both consumer choice and innovation.

Unfortunately, these bills have been co-sponsored by members of both political parties, creating what looks like a bipartisan consensus in the Senate chamber, but not one favored by the vast majority of American consumers.

Both the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and Platform Competition and Opportunity Act appear to be general antitrust regulations but are in fact targeted attacks on consumers who benefit from the services of a handful of tech companies.

While there are plenty of reasons to criticize certain tech companies and their business or moderation decisions, inviting the government to control, direct, or otherwise halt innovative goods and services from specific tech companies would create more problems for consumers than it would solve.

Don’t You Dare Sell Your Own Products

The first bill would aim to outlaw “discriminatory conduct” by the platforms targeted, mostly concerning their own products and applications. Think of the vast array of Amazon Basics products, Google’s services other than search, or even Facebook offering Messenger.

These goods and services are offered by companies because the firms have built up specialized knowledge and consumer demand exists for them. Even though these firms sell products and offer services from third parties, they also sell their own, similar to Walmart’s “Good Value” brand or even “George” clothing line.

When it comes to tech offerings, as noted by Adam Kovacevich of the Chamber of Progress, this would basically halt Amazon Prime, it would block Apple from pre-loading iMessage and Facetime, and require Apple and other phone makers to allow third-party apps to be “sideloaded” outside the traditional app store. Not only would this be inconvenient for consumers who like and use these products, but it would also make it harder to innovate, thus depriving consumers of better goods and services that could come down the line.

Don’t You Dare Acquire Other Companies

The second bill more radically alters existing antitrust law by basically baring large-capitalization tech firms from acquiring or even investing in other firms. Again, this

The rise of Silicon Valley has been an unadulterated success for American consumers, owing to the entrepreneurship of startups, companies and investors who see value in them, and the unique pollination of both talent and capital that has made American technology a dominant global player.

This bill purports to ensure consumers are protected from the “evils” of Big Tech, but in reality, it would put American entrepreneurs at a significant disadvantage globally, inviting companies from illiberal countries to offer products to consumers and reducing the options and choices for anyone who enjoys technology products.

Why Consumers Should Oppose

Rather than protect the consumer, these bills would have serious impacts on the overall consumer experience and consumer choice: 

  • They would restrict the innovative growth of US platforms while giving tech firms abroad an advantage
  • They would degrade the consumer experience by reducing the options and services firms could offer 
  • They would empower the federal government to pick the winners and losers of technological innovation rather than consumers
  • They would limit the potential for small businesses to use these platforms to provide goods and services to their customers
  • They would increase the cost of regulatory compliance with federal mandates, which would raise prices for consumers

The American people benefit from a competitive and free market for all goods, services, and networks we use online. Weaponizing our federal agencies to break up companies, especially when there is no demonstrated case of consumer harm, will chill innovation and stall our competitive edge as a country.

If Congress wants to update antitrust for the 21st century they should:

  • Establish more clear penalties for breaches of data or consumer privacy and empower the Federal Trade Commission to act where necessary
  • Punish companies that violate  existing antitrust provisions that harm consumers
  • Better define the scope of the consumer welfare standard in a digital age

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

The overwhelming majority of users are happy with online marketplaces and with their profiles on social platforms. 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 of ordinary people to enjoy the platforms for which we voluntarily signed up. 

We should hold these platforms accountable when they make mistakes, but not 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.

The Consumer Choice Center stands opposed to antitrust actions on innovative tech firms

Today, the Consumer Choice Center sent a letter to the members of the House Judiciary Committee to explain our opposition to a series of bills soon to be introduced on the House floors related to antitrust actions.

The full letter is below, and available in PDF form to share.

Dear Member of the House Judiciary Committee,

As a consumer group, we write to you to raise your attention about a series of bills that will soon be introduced on the floor of the House and make their way to the House Judiciary Committee.

These bills, soon to be introduced by Democrats and co-sponsored by some Republicans, relate to antitrust actions to be taken against tech firms based in the United States.

These include the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act, End Platform Monopolies Act, Platform Anti-Monopoly Act, Platform Competition and Opportunity Act, and Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching Act.

In our view, these bills are not about concern for the consumer, the consumer welfare standard as traditionally understood in antitrust law, or even because companies like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft are “too big.” 

Rather, these actions are a zealous takedown of American innovators that will harm consumers and punish innovation. This is a dangerous precedent.

Many of the tech companies in the crosshairs offer free or inexpensive services to consumers in a competitive marketplace that boasts hundreds of social apps for messaging, photo sharing, social networking, and online marketplaces that offer quick delivery, stellar service, and unbeatable prices.

As consumers of these services, we understand that there are often decisions made by these companies that raise concerns. For political conservatives, the issue hinges on whether there is bias in the moderation of accounts, comments, and products. For liberals, it is about whether these companies are too powerful or too big to be reined in by government, and questions about how they pay their taxes or whether various tech companies played a part in getting Donald Trump elected in 2016.

These are all valid concerns, and we have been active in calling them out where necessary.

However, using the power of the federal government to break up innovative American companies subject to domestic law, especially in the face of mounting competition from countries that are not liberal democracies, such as China, is wrong and will lead to even more unintended consequences.

The American people benefit from a competitive and free market for all goods, services, and networks we use online. Weaponizing our federal agencies to break up companies, especially when there is no demonstrated case of consumer harm, will chill innovation and stall our competitive edge as a country.

If there are breaches of data or if consumer privacy is compromised, the Federal Trade Commission should absolutely issue fines and other penalties. We agree with this. If there are egregious violations of law, they should be dealt with immediately and appropriately.

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

The overwhelming majority of users are happy with online marketplaces and with their profiles on social platforms. 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. This is an especially important point.

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 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. 

As such, when these bills come before you as legislators, we urge you, as a consumer advocacy group speaking for millions of people just like you around the country, to reject them. 

Sincerely Yours,

Yaël Ossowski

Deputy Director, Consumer Choice Center

yael@consumerchoicecenter.org

The global organizations and populists who aim to seize COVID vaccine tech and IP

When Donald Trump claimed in September 2020 that every American would have access to vaccines by April 2021, his comments received scorn. The Washington Post said his claims were “without evidence,” CNN quoted health experts who said it was impossible, and The New York Times claimed it would take another decade.

Now, a year into this pandemic, nearly half of the eligible population has received at least one vaccine dose in the U.S., and distribution has been opened to every American adult.

Operation Warp Speed, which invested tax dollars and helped reduce bureaucracy across the board, has contributed to what has truly been a miraculous effort by vaccine firms.

While Trump’s proclamations eventually become true and the question of vaccine ability has been settled, there is now pressure on the Biden administration to turn over domestic vaccine supply to countries with skyrocketing cases.

On Sunday, the U.S. declared it will send additional medical supplies to India, currently experiencing the largest global spike in cases.

But at international bodies, countries and activist groups are petitioning for far more: they want to force biotech companies to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines and COVID-related medical technology.

Along with nearly 100 other countries, India and South Africa are the architects of a motion at the World Trade Organization called a TRIPS Waiver (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights).

If the waiver is triggered, it would ostensibly nullify IP protections on COVID vaccines, allowing other countries to copy the formulas developed by private vaccine firms to inoculate their populations and play into the hands of future governments more hostile to private innovation.

This week, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai met with the heads of the various vaccine makers to discuss the proposal, but it is uncertain if the Biden administration will support the measure at the WTO.

While many companies have voluntarily pledged to sell them at cost or even offered to share information with other firms, this measure would have more far-reaching implications.

This coalition seeking the TRIPS waiver includes Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and World Health Organization Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who first backed this effort in 2020 before any coronavirus vaccine was approved.

They claim that because COVID represents such a global threat and because western governments have poured billions in securing and helping produce vaccines, low and middle-income countries should be relieved of the burden of purchasing them.

Considering the specialized knowledge needed to develop these vaccines and the cold storage infrastructure required to distribute them, it seems implausible that any of this could be achieved outside the traditional procurement contracts we’ve seen in the European Union and the U.S.

That said, rather than celebrating the momentous innovation that has led to nearly a dozen globally-approved vaccines to fight a deadly pandemic in record time, these groups are trumpeting a populist message that pits so-called “rich” countries against poor ones.

Intellectual property rights are protections that help foster innovation and provide legal certainty to innovators so that they can profit from and fund their efforts. A weakening of IP rules would actively hurt the most vulnerable who depend on innovative medicines and vaccines.

If the cost of researching and producing a COVID vaccine is truly $1 billion as is claimed, with no guarantee of success, there are relatively few biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies that can stomach that cost.

BioNTech, the German company headed by the husband-wife team of Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci that partnered with Pfizer for trials and distribution of their mRNA vaccine, was originally founded to use mRNA to cure cancer.

Before the pandemic, they took on massive debt and scrambled to fund their research. Once the pandemic began, they pivoted their operations and produced one of the first mRNA COVID vaccines, which hundreds of millions of people have received.

With billions in sales to governments and millions in direct private investment, we can expect the now-flourishing BioNTech to be at the forefront of mRNA cancer research, which could give us a cure. The same is true of the many orphan and rare diseases that do not otherwise receive major funding.

Would this have been possible without intellectual property protections?

Moderna, for its part, has stated it will not enforce the IP rights on its mRNA vaccine and will hand over any research to those who can scale up production. The developers of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have pledged to sell it at cost until the pandemic is over.

While this should smash the narrative presented by the populists and international organizations who wish to obliterate IP rights, instead they have doubled down, stating that these companies should hand over all research and development to countries that need them.

If we want to be able to confront and end this pandemic, we will continue to need innovation from both the vaccine makers and producers who make this possible. Granting a one-time waiver will create a precedent of nullifying IP rights for a host of other medicines, which would greatly endanger future innovation and millions of potential patients.

Especially in the face of morphing COVID variants, we need all incentives on the table to protect us against the next phase of the virus. 

Rather than seeking to tear them down those who have performed the miracle of quick, cheap, and effective vaccines, we should continue supporting their innovations by defending their intellectual property rights.

Yaël Ossowski (@YaelOss) is deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center, a global consumer advocacy group.

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