Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Reining in Google

The New York Times reports:

Months before the Justice Department filed a landmark antitrust suit against Google this week, the internet company’s adversaries hustled behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for a case.

Nonprofits critical of corporate power warned lawmakers that Google illegally boxed out rivals. With mounds of documents, economists and antitrust scholars detailed to regulators and state investigators how the company throttled competition. And former Silicon Valley insiders steered congressional investigators with firsthand evidence of industry wrongdoing.

An unlikely collection of lawyers, activists, economists, academics and former corporate insiders are now fueling the backlash against the world’s largest technology companies. Bolstered by millions of dollars from high-profile sponsors like the financier George Soros and the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, they have coalesced to become a new class of professional tech skeptic.

To rein in Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, the tech opponents have employed a wide set of tactics. They have lobbied regulators and lawmakers about anticompetitive business practices, filed legal complaints about privacy violations, organized boycotts and exposed the risks of disinformation and artificial intelligence.

Their potency was cemented on Tuesday when the Justice Department filed its suit accusing Google of maintaining an illegal monopoly over internet search and search advertising. After years of making the same argument, the opponents claimed the action as a victory. [Continue reading…]

In 2017, Jonathan Taplin wrote:

In just 10 years, the world’s five largest companies by market capitalization have all changed, save for one: Microsoft. Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Citigroup and Shell Oil are out and Apple, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon and Facebook have taken their place.

They’re all tech companies, and each dominates its corner of the industry: Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising, Facebook (and its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic and Amazon has a 74 percent share in the e-book market. In classic economic terms, all three are monopolies.

We have been transported back to the early 20th century, when arguments about “the curse of bigness” were advanced by President Woodrow Wilson’s counselor, Louis Brandeis, before Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court. Brandeis wanted to eliminate monopolies, because (in the words of his biographer Melvin Urofsky) “in a democratic society the existence of large centers of private power is dangerous to the continuing vitality of a free people.” We need look no further than the conduct of the largest banks in the 2008 financial crisis or the role that Facebook and Google play in the “fake news” business to know that Brandeis was right.

While Brandeis generally opposed regulation — which, he worried, inevitably led to the corruption of the regulator — and instead advocated breaking up “bigness,” he made an exception for “natural” monopolies, like telephone, water and power companies and railroads, where it made sense to have one or a few companies in control of an industry.

Could it be that these companies — and Google in particular — have become natural monopolies by supplying an entire market’s demand for a service, at a price lower than what would be offered by two competing firms? And if so, is it time to regulate them like public utilities? [Continue reading…]

Gilad Edelman writes:

The days of suit-clad men shouting out orders on the bustling floors of stock exchanges are mostly gone, replaced by windowless rooms full of servers, but the stock market is still a busy place. On the 13 US stock exchanges combined, around 50 million trades happen every day. And yet there’s another digital marketplace out there that processes tens of billions of transactions daily, one whose complexity makes the NASDAQ look like a lemonade stand: online advertising.

It may sound odd to refer to advertising as a market, but that’s what it is. The industry’s own terminology provides a hint: Publishers selling ad space, and advertisers buying it, do business on so-called “ad exchanges”; one of the biggest companies involved is called the Trade Desk. Whenever you load a web page, advertisers compete in an automated process called real-time bidding to show you their ad. Multiply that by billions of internet users around the world, loading many different pages and apps per day, and you can start to appreciate the scope. As antitrust scholar Dina Srinivasan puts it in a forthcoming paper, online advertising “is likely the most sophisticated of all electronic trading markets.” And yet, despite the market’s size and complexity—and unlike other markets—online advertising is almost completely unregulated.

A former digital advertising executive, Srinivasan gained attention last year for her paper “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook,” which laid out a novel theory of why Facebook’s market dominance can be bad for users even as it offers a free product. Now she aims to do something similar for Google—specifically, for the sprawling advertising empire that accounts for the vast majority of the company’s revenue. In her new paper, which will be published in the Stanford Technology Law Review, Srinivasan takes a deep dive into the inner workings of the digital ad market. The details are astoundingly complex, but the broad argument is straightforward. When you see an ad online, the odds are very high that the advertiser used Google to buy it, the website used Google to put the space up for sale, and Google’s exchange matched them together. In other words, Google both runs the largest exchange and competes as the biggest buyer and seller on that exchange. On top of that, it also owns YouTube, one of the biggest suppliers of ad inventory, meaning it competes against publishers on its own platform. And yet there are no laws governing any of it.

That regulatory vacuum, Srinivasan argues, has allowed Google to dominate the industry by doing things that are prohibited in other parts of the economy. “In the market for electronically traded equities, we require exchanges to provide traders with fair access to data and speed, we identify and manage intermediary conflicts of interest, and we require trading disclosures to help police the market,” she writes. Her proposal flows naturally from that observation: Apply those regulatory principles to digital advertising. [Continue reading…]

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