New Antitrust Group Targets Tech ‘Super Monopolies’

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By Alexei Alexis

Tech giants like Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Amazon.com Inc. will be prime targets of the Open Markets Institute, a newly-incorporated Washington think tank that intends to bolster Democrats’ calls to change antitrust laws.

The group was formerly housed at the Washington think tank New America, but it separated over a disagreement about Google’s influence. Open Markets is highly critical of Google, which funds New America. New America said it asked the group to leave because its leader, Barry Lynn, was uncooperative.

The think tank is launching at a time when antitrust is increasingly in the headlines. “I think we’re at a tipping point,” Lynn, the new group’s executive director, told Bloomberg BNA. “This issue is going to explode in coming years.”

Antitrust, once a technical niche issue, has grown as a priority for public interest groups and among Democrats. Open Markets is unique in that it is “100 percent focused on competition policy issues,” Lynn said. The only other Washington organization that commits all its energies to antitrust issues is the 19-year-old American Antitrust Institute.

Lynn says Open Markets has a broader vision than AAI. Its viewpoint extends beyond the limits of current law. “We look at competition policy and monopoly issues as fundamental to almost any political or economic discussion you’re going to have in America today,” Lynn said.

The group believes that market concentration is at the root of “the most crumbling ills in America,” including “crumbling communities and broken families and individuals crippled by mass marketed addictions,” according to its website.

Leverage Across Markets

The limited scope of the U.S. antitrust regime has allowed technology companies such as Google and Amazon to become “super-monopolies,” Open Markets says. These super-monopolies are armed with massive amounts of consumer data and the ability to leverage diverse operations across markets. Because these companies operate across different markets, they avoid scrutiny from regulators who tend to deploy antitrust enforcement only when isolated markets are hurt.

Lynn sees the growing public distaste for big corporations as an opportunity to reshape antitrust enforcement, which he says has remained stagnant for at least 40 years. Democratic leaders’ 'Better Deal’ economic agenda, with an emphasis on battling big corporations and updating antitrust law, shows that his group’s research and advocacy will be welcome. “We find that there’s a huge and growing interest in Congress for truth,” he said.

Acting Federal Trade Commission Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, a Republican, has said the current approach used by antitrust regulators is flexible enough for the digital age. Lynn dismisses that notion as “a set of frames designed to hide the fist of power from the American people.”

But there is support in the antitrust community for Ohlhausen’s argument that the statutes are just fine now. AAI President Diana Moss, an advocate for stronger enforcement of current law, says trying to change the the law in Congress is a wasted effort. “We do risk really sucking resources away from progressive enforcement by talking about overhauling things,” she told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “What we need is vigorous enforcement of the laws in place.”

Tech dominance is a major focal point for Open Markets, but Lynn said his group is an “across-the-spectrum anti-monopoly shop.” In addition to the technology sector, the group will be flagging concerns about industries ranging from retail to transportation, he said.

No ‘For-Profit’ Funding

Open Markets was established at New America in 2009. The separation came after Open Markets published a statement praising the European Commission’s $2.7 billion antitrust fine against Google in June. Google is one of New America’s donors.

On its website, Open Markets accuses Google of trying to “censor” journalists and researchers who are fighting “dangerous monopolies.” The group says it will continue to take the lead in exposing threats posed by Google and other technology companies.

New America denies claims that Open Markets was expelled in response to pressure from Google. “At no time did Google, or any funder, suggest firing anyone or threaten to pull funding,” a New America spokeswoman said in an e-mail. “The decision to separate from Mr. Lynn was based on his inability to work with his colleagues in a respectful, honest, and cooperative way.”

Google didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Now that Open Markets is on its own, Lynn said it won’t be accepting funds from for-profit corporations. “We’re not in this to help one class of company against another,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bna.com

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