Nearly 80 Booksellers Attend Antitrust Symposium in Washington D.C.

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On Tuesday, January 21, nearly 80 booksellers attended the American Booksellers Association’s Antitrust Symposium in Washington D.C., an event held in conjunction with ABA’s 15th Annual Winter Institute in Baltimore. Booksellers from 25 states and 4 countries were in attendance at the symposium.

The symposium’s expert panel featured Maria Coppola, adjunct professor at George Mason University Law School, teaching European competition law; David Dayen, author of Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power (The New Press); Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance; and Matt Stoller, author of Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy (Simon & Schuster).

The panel was moderated by David Grogan, ABA’s director of advocacy and public policy. In his introduction, Grogan set the stage for the conversation by reviewing recent antitrust developments related to Big Tech. Notably, the House Antitrust Subcommittee, led by Congressman David Cicilline, began holding hearings in June 2019 about whether Big Tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google) are engaging in anticompetitive and monopolistic practices. Additionally, the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, and state attorneys general began similar inquiries into Big Tech.

“ABA’s antitrust efforts, however, as many of you in the room are aware, began much earlier,” said Grogan. As far back as the late 2000s, he continued, “What [ABA] saw emerging was a pattern of behavior that led to where we are now: Amazon’s monopolization of the online book industry. We argue that Amazon is trending towards an online retail and tech industry monopoly.”

Grogan stressed that he thinks that there has been a sea change in how federal and state lawmakers view antitrust. In the past, antitrust was often viewed as a non-starter;  some lawmakers speculated that part of the problem was that antitrust was perceived as being a dry subject and even “boring.” But today, with the house hearings and the ongoing state and federal investigations into Big Tech, Grogan quipped, “Antitrust isn’t boring now is it?”

The panel then engaged in a lively discussion on a number of antitrust issues, including definitions of a monopoly, an overview of historical antitrust cases, the state of monopolies in America today, and who has the power to bring about concrete change.

Coppola defined a dominant firm as one that “is capable of conduct that is anticompetitive” and that “harms the competitive process and, therefore, likely the consumer.” On an international level, Coppola said, while different countries have different thresholds, there is a general consensus around what it means to be a monopoly. This includes the firm’s market share, potential barriers to entry or expansion, buyer power, network effects, and bad conduct.

Mitchell added that the word “monopoly” tends to confuse people since it implies there is only one dominant firm. However, as she explained, a company can be a monopoly with a market share much lower than 100 percent. The important factor is whether the company has the power to bully others to affect market outcomes to its own benefit.

“We’ve had this battle before, and we fought it, and we won,” said Stoller, in reference to the breakup of A&P. However, Stoller explained, monopolies are everywhere today, from search engines to social networks to cable companies to airlines. The emergence of Big Tech today in its current form is not a function of technology, argued Stoller, but a function of law. He continued, “[Big Tech’s] power comes from our willingness to forget what we have done before.” While in the past, he noted, the U.S. enforced antitrust law and successfully brought cases against companies, the government has significantly relaxed antitrust enforcement over the past few decades.

Coppola commented, “We are at some sort of inflection point. Which way it will go depends on a lot of different things, but there is a lot of interest and a lot of excitement around looking at antitrust with a fresh lens.”

Dayen talked specifically about Amazon’s use of predatory pricing. “[Amazon] drive[s] the prices down to acquire market share, and then at some point there’s a turn. That turn becomes the way in which [Amazon] profit[s] in the aftermath.” He noted that the realization of profit does not have to be in the form of raising consumer prices; it can also be through squeezing suppliers.

Mitchell spoke in part about possible solutions to Big Tech monopolization, saying, “Breakup should be the first solution. People say, ‘No that’s the last option.’ No, it’s not. That should be the first solution because it’s the simplest, cleanest, most American way to actually address the problem.”

Addressing booksellers’ frustrations with Big Tech, Stoller said “The thing is, [booksellers] have been in this fight a really long time so it doesn’t feel like anything has changed. But things really have changed.”

“These things often happen at a glacial pace,” added Dayen.

Agreeing with Dayen, Stoller continued, “The difference between 31 degrees and 33 degrees is that the ice cube melts. The difference between 24 and 26 degrees doesn’t feel like there is any kind of change.”

As an example, Dayen recounted that at a 2017 University of Chicago conference, Judge Richard Posner on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit declared that antitrust was dead. Just two years later, the same conference addressed not only the growing antitrust problem, but also ways in which to fix it. Further, Dayen told attendees that antitrust issues have been talked about more in the 2020 election than in any other election since 1912.

Stoller stressed that while it may seem that Big Tech has all of the power, “It’s important to understand that when the people care, they get what they want. When they understand what they want, they get it. We do live in a democracy.”

Following the symposium, booksellers in attendance had the opportunity to meet with their lawmakers on Capitol Hill.