Lynn’s book, out September 29, examines how monopoly power, specifically that of Google, Amazon, and Facebook, threatens liberty, democracy, prosperity, and national security. The book details how concentrated power has created or worsened many of the most serious problems the U.S. faces today. Despite its stark warning, the book also offers a path forward by explaining that the country’s political and legal history offers a clear contrast to the lack of antitrust enforcement seen today.
ABA: What do you think is the solution to Amazon, Google, and Facebook? A breakup? Legislative action? A combination?
BL: The most important action we can take is to prevent Amazon, Google, and Facebook from favoring some sellers over others. These corporations must never be able to cut off anyone from the market, for any arbitrary reason whatsoever. These corporations must never be able to treat one seller or one speaker differently than the next. The good news is that over the centuries, Americans have developed many laws and regulatory regimes to impose exactly these sorts of rules, including common carrier and utility law, pricing law, and direct regulation of behavior. All these tools remain available to us today.
The next most important action is to break up monopolies along both vertical and horizontal lines. One of the most important types of breakup aims to prevent monopolists from competing with their own customers. In the case of Amazon, for instance, such a separation would prevent the platform from publishing books that put it into competition with the publishers who depend on its services. In essence, these sorts of breakups aim to reinforce the neutrality of the platform by eliminating any conflict of interest that might lead the corporation to favor its own products over those of independent sellers. This sort of breakup is very common; it was, for instance, the essence of the Microsoft case of the late 1990s.
A second type of breakup is to separate activities that don’t need to be tied together. In the case of Amazon, enforcers in the coming years will almost surely question whether to separate Amazon’s core sales platform from Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing arm. The two simply don’t need to be held by the same corporation. In the case of Google, law enforcers will almost surely come to consider separating many of that corporation’s core components from each other. There is no reason, for instance, for YouTube to be tied to Google Maps, or for Gmail to be tied to Google Search, or for DoubleClick to be tied to Android. Here again there are many examples to inspire the regulators. More than 100 years ago, for instance, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson forced AT&T to spin off Western Union.
A third type of breakup is along horizontal lines. When it comes to network monopolies, there are limits to what you can achieve with this approach. But in some cases, it may prove to be a good way to increase choice, to lower prices, and to promote innovation. Law enforcers in Europe are already considering whether to force Facebook to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp, both of which the corporation acquired in recent years.
ABA: How do you advise concerned citizens and small businesses like independent bookstores to get involved in advocating for antitrust enforcement in a meaningful way?
BL: Booksellers should aim to educate their readers, their neighbors, the members of their community. This is absolutely the most important action that any bookseller can take when it comes to today’s monopolies. And the task is far easier than when I published Cornered a decade ago. Back then, I was the only person writing about the threats posed by the monopolists, and there was almost no discussion of the issue in the media or among policymakers. Now there are many books on the issue, and it is one of the top issues in the media on any given day. Readers themselves are now fully awake to the threat. A recent survey showed that more than 75 percent of voting age adults are concerned about the threat of monopoly.
This, in turn, means these readers want to learn more about the nature of the problem and how to fix it. In addition to Liberty From All Masters, there are also excellent books on the subject by Christopher Leonard, Zephyr Teachout, and David Dayen, and later this year by Sally Hubbard, my colleague at Open Markets. Many booksellers will remember the hullabaloo around Thomas Piketty’s book Capital back in 2014. The main difference between that work and these new books on monopoly is that they are written so that anyone can understand the nature of the problem. These books also point to real villains and real solutions.
In many ways, the independent bookseller in America today is at the forefront of this struggle. It is an issue you understand as well as anyone, from having to fight day after day with one of the great predators of all time, Amazon. It is an issue you understand from your own experiences having to deal with the disruptions of COVID-19, which, were made far worse by monopolization. Just as in the days of the Revolution, or before the Civil War, or during the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-war movements of the 1960s and more recently, America’s booksellers can play a huge role not just in helping to alert people to the danger, but in connecting them to the solutions.
In the specific instance of Amazon and Google, when booksellers take a role in this fight, they are doing more than just educating citizens and fostering smart debate. They are also helping to drive forward a discussion that is directly pertinent to the future of the American bookstore itself, and to the wellbeing and independence of the author, editor, publisher, and local entrepreneur. In short, booksellers, simply by doing what they do best, will help to protect one of the fundamental institutions of democracy, which is the book industry itself.
ABA: What would you like to see vs. what do you expect to see from a potential Biden Administration or second-term Trump Administration regarding antitrust and Big Tech?
BL: What I’d most like to see on day one of a Biden administration is a statement that communicates the simplest of ideas. It should say that the main purpose of America’s anti-monopoly laws is to protect our liberty as individuals, our democracy, and our communities. It should make clear that President Biden will enforce the law according to this philosophy.
To understand why such a statement of philosophy would be so important, you can turn to a package of articles in the New York Times about a famous essay that the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman published in 1970. In that essay, Friedman assailed the traditional ways in which Americans had regulated monopoly. Along with allies such as Robert Bork and Richard Posner, Friedman promoted a different philosophy. He said monopoly should be embraced because it results in a more efficient economy. In 1982, the Reagan administration embraced Friedman’s philosophy and applied it to how we enforce our anti-monopoly laws. And sure enough, over the next generation, the result is that power has been concentrated in ways that threaten our most fundamental liberties, our democracy, and our communities.
President Biden can make that right immediately.
But even if Biden does not make that right immediately, we should remain confident that we will prevail. Even if the White House does not take part, we see new and vitally important organizing against monopoly taking place in both the House and the Senate, in every state of the union, and across Europe.
The fight is on. What is most lacking is an educated citizenry able to help drive the fight forward to victory. That is where the booksellers of America come in.