Trust-busting is not the medicine Facebook, Google and a sick internet need 


It is an uphill slog to wage this generation’s battles with last generation’s weapons. But that is what came to mind when we learned that 47 state attorneys general led by Texas’ Ken Paxton will investigate Google for “potential monopolistic behavior.”

This isn’t the first probe of a tech giant nor will it be the last. Other states have joined forces to look into Facebook’s market dominance, and various Congressional, Federal Trade Commission, Department of Justice and European investigations are also underway into the practices of the Internet’s biggest players. The common element is whether online business practices impede competition, suppress innovation and harm consumers.

The answer is a mix of yes, no and sometimes. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other tech giants cast large shadows over our lives. They make our lives better, but many business practices regarding privacy, personal data, online speech, internet searches, online advertising, publishing and competition cause us great concern. A big part of the problem is that Congress has been missing in action on telecom, antitrust and privacy issues for decades.

Let us be clear: Companies that violate privacy protections, track web activity without consumer permission or misrepresent their actions should be held accountable. Such violators should also bear responsibility for the content they propagate as other publishers are.

The problem is that the old rules of policing monopolistic conduct aren’t appropriate to regulate a dynamic technology world. Congress has not addressed the rules of the new game since the Telecommunications Act in 1996 updated telephone industry regulations in the aftermath of the 1984 breakup of the old Bell system. Think about that. It took 12 years after the Bell system breakup for Congress to act, and in the 23-years since the last telecom reform, the pace of change has been light years faster.

Existing laws, from antitrust to privacy, are not suited to address the most glaring practices of big tech companies, such as how they handle consumer data and treat potential competition. So when state or federal regulators attempt to corkscrew old school antitrust and telecom principles to address newly perceived monopolistic conduct, the risk is less innovation, overregulation and higher prices for consumers.

The internet is vibrant because the sum is greater than the parts. Voice, music, news, photos, video, advertising and other services were once separate mediums and industries; now they are intertwined business models. The question is whether the current structure of the internet, with a very few dominant companies, fairly treats both consumers and creators. There is good reason to doubt it does.

But the remedy must also recognize the enormous benefits consumers have reaped from the internet. Protecting people’s privacy, as well as reforming the blanket immunity internet platforms enjoy from civil liability, are appropriate areas for Congress to address, and address soon.

We appreciate the frustration of the attorneys general with Google. And we accept they are using the tools they have. But those tools are the wrong ones for this fight.

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