The Federal Trade Commission’s chair, Lina Khan, has brought her long-awaited, audacious case against Amazon, signaling the Biden administration’s determination to restore an approach to competition law that has been in decline since the Carter administration. This will doubtless draw fresh criticism about her supposed overreach. But Amazon is precisely the kind of company that Congress had in mind in enacting America’s many antitrust laws.
Only more so: The Congress of 1890, which passed the first of those laws, could never have imagined the world we now inhabit.
The robber barons of that era hijacked the economy and politics, but they also faced the constraints of empires grounded in physical goods. They couldn’t lay a railroad or erect a steel mill without time-consuming capital and logistical hurdles. Today’s tech barons at huge platforms like Amazon, Google and Meta can deploy anticompetitive, deceptive and unfair tactics with the agility and speed of a digital system. As in any shell game, the quickness of the hand deceives the eye.
And Amazon is the apex predator of our platform era. Having first subsidized end-users and then offered favorable terms to business customers, Amazon was able to exploit its digital flexibility to lock both in and raid them for an ever-increasing share of the value they created. This program of redistribution from platform users to shareholders continued until Amazon became a vestigial place, a retail colossus barely hindered by either competition or regulation, where prices go up as quality goes down and the undifferentiated slurry of products from obscure brands is wreathed in inauthentic reviews.
It’s hard to remember that the internet was originally supposed to connect producers and shoppers, artists and audiences, and members of communities with one another without permission or control by third parties. In its early years, Amazon was good to its users. It sold products affordably and shipped them swiftly and reliably. It attended closely to the authenticity of the reviews that appeared on its site and operated an “honest search” that populated results pages with the best matches for each query.
Then Amazon started locking everyone in. [Continue reading…]