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Open-ended antitrust is an innovation killer

Open-ended antitrust is an innovation killer
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Antitrust reform is a hot bipartisan item today, with Democrats and Republicans floating proposals to significantly expand federal control over the marketplace. Much of this activity is driven by growing concern about some of the nation’s largest digital technology companies, including Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.

Unfortunately, the calls for more bureaucracy and regulation emanating from all corners of the political world could have an unintended consequence: discouraging the sort of vibrant innovation and consumer choice that made America’s tech companies household names across the globe.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after pushback from Klobuchar, Lee Lobbying world MORE (D-Minn.) is leading one charge. Klobuchar, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, recently introduced the “Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act.” This sweeping measure seeks to expand the powers and budgets of antitrust regulators at the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice. It also includes new filing requirements and potentially hefty civil fines.

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The most important feature is the proposed change to the legal standard by which regulators approve business deals. It would allow the government to stop any deal that creates an “appreciable risk of materially lessening competition,” and it also defines exclusionary behavior as, “conduct that materially disadvantages one or more actual or potential competitors.”

These may sound like simple, semantic tweaks, but – much like some of the other policy ideas currently circulating – they would upend decades of settled law and create a sea change in U.S. antitrust enforcement. This change could undermine business dynamism, innovation and investment in ways that inhibit the global competitiveness of U.S. businesses.

Critics of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity by large tech firms include not only Sen. Klobuchar but also Republicans such as Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyBiden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  Cruz raises .3 million in first quarter of 2021 Exclusive: GOP senators seek FBI investigation into Biden Pentagon nominee MORE (R-Mo.). Hawley recent offered an amendment to a budget bill that would preemptively prohibit mergers and acquisitions by dominant online firms. Klobuchar and Hawley believe that M&A skews the market in favor of today’s largest firms, entrenching their market power and discouraging innovation. 

History teaches a different lesson. Consider DirecTV and Skype, both once considered innovative market leaders in their respective fields of satellite TV and internet telephony. Both firms stumbled, however, and they might not even be with us today without creative business deals. DirecTV has been partially or fully controlled by Hughes Electronics, News Corp., Liberty Media and now AT&T. Skype has swapped hands multiple times, moving from eBay, to a private investment firm and now to Microsoft.

These were complex deals, and some didn’t work, leading to divestitures. But each was a learning experience that illustrated how dynamic media and technology markets can be with firms constantly searching for value-added arrangements that serve their customers and shareholders. If we make this type of activity presumptively illegal, we’re imagining that government bureaucrats are better suited to make these calls than businesspeople and the consumers who choose whether or not to buy the product.

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Worse yet, legal tests like those Klobuchar proposes – “conduct that materially disadvantages potential competitors” – are remarkably open-ended and could be easily abused. The system will be gamed by opponents of deals for business reasons. They will claim that their own failure to attract investors or customers must all be the fault of more creative rivals. That’s a recipe for cronyism and economic stagnation. 

Those who worry about today’s largest tech giants becoming supposedly unassailable monopolies should consider how similar fears were expressed not so long ago about other tech titans, many of which we laugh about today. Just 14 years ago, headlines proclaimed that “MySpace Is a Natural Monopoly,” and asked, “Will MySpace Ever Lose Its Monopoly?” We all know how that “monopoly” ceased to exist.

At the same time, pundits insisted “Apple should pull the plug on the iPhone,” since “there is no likelihood that Apple can be successful in a business this competitive.” The smartphone market of that era was viewed as completely under the control of BlackBerry, Palm, Motorola and Nokia. A few years prior to that, critics lambasted the merger of AOL and TimeWarner as a new corporate “Big Brother” that would decimate digital diversity and online competition.

Today, we know these tales of the apocalypse ended up instead becoming case studies in the continuing power of “creative destruction.” New innovations and players emerged from many unexpected quarters, decimating whatever dreams of continued domination the old giants once had.

Today’s biggest players face similar pressures, and it’s better to let rivalry and innovation emerge organically, not through the wrecking ball of heavy-handed antitrust regulation.

Adam Thierer is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.