Elizabeth Warren’s anti-trust approach to internet companies disregards the autonomy of making a market

Last March, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, made an argument for dismantling three of the internet’s biggest portal companies: Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Ms. Warren asserts that these companies have too much power over the private lives of Americans as well as over the economy.  Through their economic and political behavior, Amazon, Facebook, and Google have, according to Ms. Warren, have stifled the ability of smaller players to enter and innovate in the internet markets.

Elizabeth Warren’s Argument

Ms. Warren asserts that Amazon, Facebook, and Google use two strategies to create dominance on the internet.  The first strategy is the use of mergers by large internet portals to effectively eliminate competition.  Under this strategy, Amazon, Facebook, and Google buy out their competition, at times, according to Ms. Warren, at a discounted price.

The second strategy used by internet portals is to create proprietary marketplaces to limit or eliminate competition.  Under this scenario, a portal like Amazon creates a competitive product for sale on its website and uses its scale to price out a competitive product that is also offered for sale on Amazon’s website.

Ms. Warren believes this dominance can be addressed by by taking two steps.  First, portals such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google would be designated as platform utilities.  This means that Facebook would have to divest itself of a service provider that competes with other service providers that use Facebook’s platform to connect to its consumers.

The Problem with Ms Warren’s Approach

Ms. Warren’s approach is similar to the regulatory approach used in the 1990s where local telephone companies that wanted to provide toll services beyond their local areas had to set up separate subsidiaries.  The two differences between the telecom scenario of the 1990s and Ms. Warren’s platform utility model is that telecoms didn’t have to divest these companies, but operated them separately.

More important, these telecom companies were still utilities exercising monopoly control of local service areas.  Until 1996, their local rates were still regulated and they still needed permission to add certain local services.  Their monopoly power resulted from the inefficiencies that would occur from multiple firms trying to provide the same telecommunications services in limited geographic space. Monopoly power granted by the state to these firms was the response by the State to the problems occurring from congestion.

The Open Internet Eliminates Monopoly Power

Amazon, Facebook, and Google, for all their dominance in the e-commerce space operate in the open internet.  In the open internet, any firm or other association of individuals with the right search algorithms, expert technical knowledge, and adequate capital, can set up servers almost anywhere in the world, and start a competing service or carve out a niche portal service.  The internet’s technical openness is rivaled only by its global nature.  Amazon, Facebook, Google may be dominant in the American e-commerce market, but constant regulatory threats by the European Union and hostility to them from China reduces their perceived dominance.  Ms. Warren has not shown how these firms can dominate a global network of 100,000 interconnected computers that operate on an open architecture.

Internet Portals are Not Utilities

It should also be mentioned that the internet itself is not a utility.  In 2015, Federal Communications Commission member Michael O’Rielly made this point during a speech.  Mr. O’Rielly said the following:

“It is important to note that Internet access is not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans and doesn’t even come close to the threshold to be considered a basic human right. … People do a disservice by overstating its relevancy or stature in people’s lives. People can and do live without Internet access, and many lead very successful lives.  It is even more ludicrous to compare Internet access to a basic human right. In fact, it is quite demeaning to do so in my opinion.”

When we think of utilities, we think of monopolies that, due to their efficient delivery of vital services such as water and energy, are granted an exclusive market within which to provide those services.  As alluded to earlier, because of the open nature of the internet and its global reach, it is near impossible for one firm to have an exclusive market, unless a government decides to grant it, and that move would be irrational because government exclusivity would block the very cross-border data flows facilitated by an open internet.

Acquisition of Apps and Brick and Mortar Stores by an Internet Portal Does Not Create Monopolies

The second step Ms. Warren would take to squelch internet portal dominance would be to designate regulators that would prevent Amazon, Facebook, or Google from merging with other firms and thus eliminating competition.  She provides a couple examples: Facebook and WhatsApp; Google and Waze; Amazon and Whole Foods.  There are two problems with her examples and the conclusion that these “mergers” are not competitive.

First, these were not mergers but acquisitions. Two information portals, Facebook and Google, acquired two information assets.  Given the services these assets provide, Facebook and Google made the business judgment that adding these services to their portfolios made sense from a services and revenue perspective.  Amazon, first and foremost an online retailer, added a retail food service from which Amazon’s subscribers could purchase groceries at a discount.

Ms. Warren failed to argue how Facebook’s ownership of a messaging service keeps other firms from developing their own messaging service.  She failed to explain how Google’s acquisition of Waze keeps other technology firms from creating an app that provides drivers with directions. Ms. Warren also fails to show how Amazon is keeping, say Kroger, from creating its own grocery delivery service.

It would be one thing to say that these firms monopolized physical infrastructure to the point where other firms would see increasing costs of entry, but the internet’s openness, combined with access to technical talent and expertise and cheap capital means that the assets purchased by Amazon, Facebook, and Google are themselves subject to competition.

Conclusion: Internet Openness and its Global Nature Keeps Monopoly Power in Check

The open and global nature of the internet combined with access to expertise, talent, and cheap capital works to mitigate monopoly behavior.  As technology evolves and entrepreneurs innovate, the services rivaling WhatsApp, Waze, or even Facebook will emerge.  Given the current make-up of the Congress and the low probability of Elizabeth Warren winning the Democratic nomination, the likelihood of her proposals being enacted via law or administrative fiat is close to zero. This does not mean that internet portals concerned about this type of overreach should stay less than vigilant in preparing to push back against them.

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The State’s role in integrating artificial intelligence into America’s economy

Artificial intelligence has the capability of creating another resource that can be optimized or consumed by a nation-state.  Increases in computing power and better designed algorithms along with access to increasing amounts of data translates into an increased amount of information that can be extracted via machine learning.

Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer postulates that a nation’s prosperity is a function of the rate at which we solve problems.  If he is correct, then problem solving requires that we maximize the amount of available information to find the best answer.

If information is the jet fuel for a Fourth Industrial Revolution economy, data is the oil that has to be extracted and refined. Companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google are using machine learning to provide better customer and subscriber experiences with their product.  They are among the largest of the data miners.  Their efforts, along with those of other technology companies is expected to contribute to economic growth beyond a baseline (no-artificial intelligence) scenario.

For example, Accenture reports that labor will see an increase in productivity of 35% by the year 2035 due to the application of artificial intelligence.  Annual growth rates in value added to gross domestic product are approximated at 4.6% by 2035. With capital and labor (due to a cap on the capacity of cognitive ability) reaching their limits as contributors to increased economic growth, artificial intelligence, taking its place along capital, labor, and entrepreneurship as a factor of production, is expected to help the economy exceed its current limits in three ways:

  1. Automating physical tasks as a result of artificial intelligence’s ability to self-learn;
  2. Augmenting labor by giving labor the opportunity to focus on creativity, imagination, and innovation; and
  3. Diffusing innovation through the economy.

With these promises of growth comes the fear on the part of labor that artificial intelligence will eliminate the need for a substantial portion of current jobs.  Even while experts and academics tout artificial intelligence as a complement to labor; as an augmenter of labor’s cognitive skills, there is still the fear that this emerging technology will create a valueless human workforce.  This perception creates a dilemma for a government that sees democracy under the attack globally.  Is artificial intelligence going to exclude millions in the name of efficiency? If so, what use is there from participating equally in an electoral process of the economy leaves you out?

Government will have to prepare a messaging campaign if it is to maintain its legitimacy as a distributor of economic equity in the face of an increasingly digitized economy and society. The potential destructive nature of artificial intelligence is scarier than what has been presented in movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Terminator.” Immediate benefits of artificial intelligence may flow first to those who already have high tech skills or hold or have access to great amounts of capital. In other words, AI is the ultimate nail in the coffin for the capital gap. Those with access to or control of capital will only see their control over the data and information that feeds it get larger. If you can’t process data or package useful information, you are nonexistent. Just useless furniture. It won’t be some AI robot that kills you off. It will be a human with money and enhanced cognitive skills that decide we are valueless.

As Erik Brynjolfsson, Xiang Hui, and Meng Liu pointed out last month in an article for The Washington Post last month, “No economic law guarantees that productivity growth benefits everyone equally.  Unless we  thoughtfully manage the transition, some people, even a majority, are vulnerable to being left behind even as others reap billions.”

As Professor Yuri Harari notes, technology is not deterministic, however.  It is people who make decisions as to how their political economy will shift and change.  Brynjolfsson, Hui, and Liu note that voters need to urge policymakers to “invest in research that will design approaches to human learning for an era of machine learning.”

The evidence does not show that policymakers are being prodded to move on the issue of artificial intelligence. Not surprising since voters are not knowledgeable about the issue either.  Artificial intelligence is not on the top of any poll responses from voters.  As regards to Congress, the only major action has been companion bills S.2217 and HR4625 where Congress wants the Secretary of Commerce to establish a federal advisory committee on the development and implementation of artificial intelligence.  While the bills provide good working definitions of artificial intelligence and machine learning and has among its concerns economic productivity, job growth, and labor displacement, allowing a bill to sit in committee for ten months is not the kind of speedy intelligence that artificial intelligence needs to be complemented by.