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"Are Facebook, Twitter, Google evil or just everywhere? What we have to do about big tech"

By law professor Glenn Reynolds, proprietor of Instapundit

I've been reading Instapundit regularly for at least 15 years. (I know this because my first link to it on this blog is dated 3/7/04.) In my opinion it's one of the very best things on the Net. Prof. Reynolds is consistently calm, reasonable, informed, and usually, magnificently correct. 

But on this issue--using antitrust to break up Google, Twitter, and Facebook--I'm sorry to say I sharply disagree with him. (The piece linked to doesn't quite state that he favors antitrust against the social media giants. But he regularly calls for just that on Instapundit.)

I note first that the core products of all three firms have been, and still are, absolutely free. And at least for Google, my experience is that quality--good to begin with--has improved over time. (See also "The Real Issue in Tech Antitrust: Where’s the Harm?" and "Why sound law and economics should guide competition policy in the digital economy," pp. 3-7.) 

Logically then, the folks that want to use antitrust against these three firms must propose evading the limits on antitrust's scope that have been in place for nearly 50 years now. And that's exactly what they do propose: Antitrust should either be given unprecdented new scope--Protect workers! Protect the community! Protect the environment! Protect outer space! (The last one is a joke. For now)--or we should return to what many of its advocates see as antitrust's original purpose, that of "protecting" small businesses.

I think Prof. Reynolds's complaint against the firms falls into the "protect the community" category. He has three complaints:

Thus today’s social media world tends to give us the worst possible outcome: lots of angry, ill-informed speech, coupled with censorship of things that the platform owners don’t like or are pressured into killing. Add to that a tremendous loss of privacy as platforms monetize people’s personal data, and it’s easy to see why the tech giants aren’t as popular as they once were.

In order:

  1. "[A]ngry, ill-informed speech". I think there's always been some of that. And as long as we don't ban the Internet, there will always be a easily accessible home for it. But I don't think the problem is with the speech. The problem is that some people, especially academics, politicians, and even some businesspeople, pay far more attention to it than they used to. That's an interesting problem, one worth addressing, but I don't think antitrust can do anything to fix it.
  2. [C]ensorship of things . . ." I have several responses. 1) Conservatives--who, judging by the amount of complaining, are by far the most worried about this "censorship" have plenty of outlets for their views. I mean it's astonishing how much things have improved since I was kid. Then, three networks and two or three newspapers seemingly set the nation's agenda. But now we have--much to the intense frustation of Liberals--a conservative TV network. We have Rush and his millions of listeners. And we have, by my quick count, 1.2 zillion places for conservative thought on the Net. 2) There are readily available substitutes--literally a couple of effortless seconds away--for all these firms. Substitutes for Google. For Facebook. For Twitter. If you don't like the three firms' services, don't use them. If you use them because they are better than the alternatives, then we have absolutely no need for antitrust. If you use them because all your friends do, that's like saying everyone on your block has a $60K car so you have to, too. That's your problem, not society's, and not the Antitrust Division's. 3) People forget how new search and social media are. Give us some time to develop institutions and procedures that will handle any negative aspects. Remember TV was thought by some to be the end of America. (Who would have thought that TV, or at least "prestige" TV would one day far better that most of what's shown in theaters?) And so was rock-and-roll, many times. 4) Consistent with #3, I think it will likely dawn on these companies, sooner or later but probably sooner, that alienating a chunk of their potential patrons is simply not good business. As Michael Jordan supposedly said--but maybe didn't--when asked why he didn't speak out more against those evil Republicans, "Republicans buy sneakers, too". And 5) Part of the complaint stems from these companies' apparent dominance. But history teaches us that that dominance has a good chance of being utterly temporary. Back in the 70s and early 80s, at least some academics as well as other people were afraid that our food retailing system was soon to be dominated by a handful or less of firms. Food being more important, I assert, than social media, this prospect was quite scary. Nobody saw Wal-Mart coming. When I started working with PCs the positions of Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect seemed well-nigh impregnable.  Nobody saw Microsoft coming. (And these two cases make the important point that at least sometimes big firms are needed to challenge big firms.) There are a few signs of this happening for the three tech firms: see, for examples, "Amazon Is Challenging Google And Facebook For Dominance In Digital Advertising" and "Why did Facebook lose an estimated 15 million users in the past two years?".Or as Diane Katz summarizes, "Where is Netscape? America Online? Alta Vista? Myspace? Napster? Palm?"
  3. "[M]onetize people's personal. data". All kinds of businesses do that. But more importantly, it seems as though the social media companies have already responded and have responded substantially to people's concerns. If some concerns remain, the companies should be asked to do more. Maybe--although I'm far from convinced--some more regulations should be enacted to address specific concerns. But once again, I don't see antitrust as helping much or at all.

Finally, I'll note that the notion that our antitrust laws are wonderful, public-spirited laws that safeguard, by both their intention and their effect, our precious free-enterprise system is, to put it mildly, highly questionable. That topic requires a lengthy post of its own, but readers unfamiliar with that claim can start with "Antitrust’s Sordid History".

To end, let me cite Arnold Kling, who matches Prof. Reynolds in being calm, reasonable, informed, and usually, magnificently correct. (But he's a Ph.D. economist as well.)

It is not just that government regulation will be incompetent. In the end, it will lead to concentration of power that is tighter and more dangerous than what we have now. The more power we cede to government over the Internet, the less open and free it is going to be.

Rooting for government to regulate tech is like rooting for Putin to kill off Russian oligarchs. The oligarchs may be no-goodniks, but Putin is not going to make Russia a better place by killing them.