Regulatory Policy

Trustbusting Comes to Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. (Melpomenem/Getty Images)
The president of a small-business advocacy non-profit makes the case against Big Tech antitrust laws.

Conservatives have been divided on the issue of antitrust lately. The actions of Big Tech companies allegedly censoring conservatives have led to increased calls for regulation. Five new pieces of antitrust legislation have been introduced in Congress by David Cicilline (D., R.I.) and have been joined by a handful of Republicans. However, many free-market advocates have staunchly opposed this kind of state intervention in the economy, arguing that trustbusters are too eager to use the government to correct perceived wrongs.

Jake Ward is the president of Connected Commerce Council (3C), a nonprofit membership group that supports and advocates on behalf of digitally empowered small businesses. Recent 3C research found that digital tools helped millions of small businesses stay afloat during COVID-19. In an interview with National Review’s Sean-Michael Pigeon, Ward makes the case that the proposed new antitrust laws will hurt the very small businesses they hope to support.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sean-Michael Pigeon: These new antitrust regulation bills, are they targeted at Big Tech corporations, or at big businesses? Can you talk a bit about the focus of these new bills?

Jake Ward: The House Judiciary Committee is considering passing five bills very quickly. These measures are aimed squarely at Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple to increase their burden of compliance and reporting, and as well as to impose penalties for violations. And more egregiously, to out-and-out stop them from doing things that are core to their business, and frankly core to everybody else’s business too. And when you ask the question, “Are they targeted at Big Tech or Big Business generally?” the answer is, “absolutely.”

SMP: What are you hearing from the supporters of this bill? Who are they trying to help and how has your own research kind of shown how the Big Tech companies help out small businesses?

JW: Research on the impact of digital tools over the past 18 months has been nothing short of staggering. Digital tools, technologies, marketplaces were the lifeline during COVID-19; they were the safety net of American small business. They are the reason we aren’t in a depression right now. A once-in-a-century global pandemic that puts entire countries in a volatile place was lessened significantly because of these tools and services.

There is no good time to have a global pandemic, but if you’re going to have one, then the best time possible is when you can pivot your Main Street bookstore to an online inventory system and use online advertising to grow your customer base and stay in business. Now businesses can do it for pennies on the dollar, which is made possible because of billions of dollars invested by America’s leading technology companies. Yes, some of them are Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, but also dozens more companies that sewed this safety net together.

I’m pretty sure that 40 percent [3C’s research reports 37 percent] of American small businesses said that without access to these tools and services, they would have had to close their doors permanently or at least for a period of time during the pandemic. That would have been a tremendous amount of job loss and money taken out of the economy for an indeterminate amount of time.

There is no evidence — none — that large technology companies are bad for small businesses. There are no economic studies that say that. There are no actual backed-up anecdotes that say that. Access to digital tools and services are good for small businesses. Vertical integration for small businesses is critical to success in the digital age.

Democrats are mad because they think these companies are too big and don’t pay enough in taxes, and they blame them for radicalization that led to Trump’s election. Republicans are mad because they think there is such a thing called conservative bias in social media. None of these bills come within a country mile of addressing the issues that Democrats and Republicans are mad about, so instead, as irrational as it is, they just want to make it harder for America’s leading industries to be successful.

SMP: There is a newfound interest in trustbusting on the right. How do you respond to the concerns of horizontal integration between these companies that make it difficult for conservatives?

JW: I think that it’s really important when you enter into these conversations to do so in good faith. Whenever a policy-maker, and I don’t care which side of the aisle they are on, but they are almost invariably conservative, says something like “social media and Big Tech are infringing on the First Amendment rights of Americans,” I can’t continue that conversation in good faith. Because they know better than anybody there is no guarantee of free speech among corporations and private citizens. It is the government’s responsibility to not infringe on freedom of speech. The First Amendment does not guarantee our right to say whatever we want to say, wherever we want to say it, on anybody’s property or digital property at any time we choose. That’s not how freedom of speech works.

The next piece of the puzzle, though, which is reasonable, is: “Are large American technology companies so large that they are creating consumer harm?” That’s impossible if you accept that these five bills are aimed at four specific companies who have, just by definition, created competition. Four companies vying for the same business across industries, across regions, and across demographics. That’s competition and it is fierce.

SMP: In your time as president of 3C, what is the biggest misconception policy-makers or the public at-large has about the real problems that small businesses are facing? What are we not getting right now about what small businesses need?

JW: The real misconception is about whether individual users of platforms are the consumers. The consumers are small businesses. The people or companies who are running ads on Google and Facebook, they are the consumers. Harm is being done when we take away access to those resources. We cannot afford for the government to just “take a swing at this” when they don’t even know who the bill will actually apply to and they haven’t done their homework on the very people they claim to be protecting.

The biggest threat is that everybody wants to be for small businesses. Small businesses are apple pie and mother’s milk when it comes to a political fight. But the truth is that policy-makers talk a lot about small businesses, they almost never talk to small businesses.

The one thing policy-makers must remember is that instability and uncertainty are the number one cause of death for small businesses. If you can’t predict the future, if you don’t know what foot you are going to stand on, you can’t hire employees. That uncertainty, that paralysis, kills small businesses. Inversely, chaos, like what we have had for the past 15 months, is tremendous for large businesses.

So when policy-makers try to write laws that are aimed at four of the largest companies in the United States, they inadvertently hit tens of millions of small businesses that use those digital tools, that count on that vertical integration, that turn to them for access as a conduit to build new resources, affordably, securely, and at scale.

I’m old enough to remember when ten years ago Walmart was the enemy. . . . And I’m old enough to remember ten years before that, when Barnes & Noble was the worst thing that had ever happened to bookstores. How are they doing?

The free market works, it has always worked. It’s undefeated. We have the rules in place to act on [Big Tech]. There is no reason to think that the same laws that worked for Standard Oil and U.S. Steel can’t be applied when there is evidence of consumer harm or market manipulation. None of those things apply and so David Cicilline and a band of House Democrats are trying to write new laws.

This is not the time and these are not the laws.

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