Google has announced that, starting next year, the Google Chrome browser will block auto-play videos unless the user has demonstrated interest in the video or the video is set to mute. Sounds great, right? Everyone hates auto-play videos.
Yet this is exactly the sort of use of Big Tech market power that you’ve been warned about: Google is using its leverage as one of the main web browser players to shape the business environment to its advantage in the advertising, news reporting and video spaces, where it also has substantial interests.
Like many choices that Google and Facebook have made in recent years, this will make it harder at the margin for media companies to make money. This change will tend to reduce the ability of companies whose business model involves putting videos in front of consumers (many news organisations, but also Facebook) to generate impressions and revenue.
But as I noted, everyone hates auto-play videos, so Google’s heavy-handed action here is likely to please consumers. How are you supposed to convince people this is Big, Bad Google being Big and Bad?
Similarly, a lot of the steps tech giants take to gain more control over the marketplace are, on their face, improvements to the user experience. Instant Articles and Amp are initiatives that give Facebook and Google, respectively, more control over the delivery of news stories to users. But they also cause articles to load faster and with a cleaner presentation, which is why they can get people to use them.
Most of the complaints against Amazon involve actions that seem good for the consumer. Amazon doesn’t lose money, but it seems indifferent to profit generation, and that has allowed it to provide low prices and quick delivery.
In theory, Amazon could be undercutting its competitors on price to gain a monopoly and raise prices later. But if so, when? They have been a zero-profit company for nearly 20 years. Complaining that Amazon is a predatory pricer is to prioritise theoretical costs to consumers far in the future over very real benefits consumers are enjoying now.
If monopoly policy is remade to rein in Big Tech, there is every risk that it will reduce those present benefits in an effort to address future problems that may not exist, or alternatively may not be successfully addressed through anti-monopoly policies that seek to address them.
This is especially true because (with the possible exception of Google) these firms are so far from meeting traditional definitions of anti-trust violations that very novel enforcement definitions would have to be developed to restrict them. Very novel policies can produce very unanticipated results.
My view is that there are several industries where industry concentration is a bigger problem than in tech and where remedies for that concentration are much simpler to develop. I would place hospitals and pharmaceutical companies at the top of that list; other candidates are telecom companies, financial services providers, and — though I would not have placed them on this list a few years ago when they were constantly going bankrupt — airlines.
I wrote earlier this year that Democrats should put pro-consumer constraints on these industries at the top of their economic agenda.
In addition to being more amenable to improvement through public policy than Big Tech, these industries are politically easier to rein in because they tend to be at the top of ordinary people’s “what grinds my gears” lists, in large part because they are perceived as providing poor service and poor value for money — unlike Google and Facebook and Amazon, which provide products that seem to continually improve and which are cheap or free to consumer.
It’s easy to tell people that medical providers and airlines are screwing them and what the government can do to fix that. I don’t think you’ll ever be able to do it with something as popular and as free as Facebook.
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