Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Big Deal in Amazon’s Antitrust Case

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How boy, this is a moment. A U.S. government authority has sued Amazon over allegations that the company violated the law by unlawfully destroying competition.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the District Attorney General for Columbia District, joins recent antitrust lawsuits against Google and Facebook. These lawsuits will last forever, and legal experts said the businesses are likely to prevail in court.

However, DC Attorney General Karl Racine is making a legitimate argument against Amazon, which is both the old school and the new, and it could become a blueprint to reduce Big Tech power.

It’s a long-standing claim by some independent retailers selling on Amazon’s digital mall that the company penalizes them if they mention their products less on their own sites or other malls like Walmart.com. The sellers effectively say that Amazon prescribes what happens in malls all over the internet, thus making products more expensive for all of us.

Racine made this claim a core of his lawsuit. Amazon has previously said that retailers have absolute authority to set prices for the products they sell on its website, but it ignores that the company has subtle levers to make the retailers’ products anything but invisible to buyers. If a retailer lists a product for less on another site, Amazon can respond by making it more difficult for a store to purchase the item.

Amazon said in a statement to my colleagues that retailers have the freedom to list and price their products as they wish, but that Amazon can choose not to emphasize products that are not competitively priced.

Why is the Attorney General’s claim a big deal?

Legal experts said it was difficult to sue technology giants for violating antitrust laws. This is in part because of the way American competition laws have been written, interpreted, and applied over decades. But the lawsuit against Amazon circumvents it by saying that the technology giant hurts the public like the 19th-century railroads and steel giants did – by increasing strong arms competition and prices at will.

Last year, jurist and Big Tech critic Tim Wu told me that he believes the price claims are the direct possible antitrust case against Amazon. (He has since been elected to advise the White House on corporate competition matters.)

I do not know if any of these lawsuits against Big Tech succeed in driving away the enormous influence of the companies. And I can not definitively say whether we are better or worse off by having a handful of powerful technology companies that use products and are often loved by billions of people.

However, it was remarkable to see the evolution of thinking among some of the public and politicians, from the justified awe for these companies and what they do, to the questioning of the disadvantages of technologies and the sometimes hard buyers behind them.

It is sometimes an unfair and noisy mess. But remember why we came to this point: technology giants are one of the most powerful forces in our world, and the price of power was investigated.

How to fight back against fake online information: Comedian Sarah Silverman and three of my colleagues are hosting a virtual event on Wednesday about disinformation and how it can be combated. Sign in here for the online event at 7 p.m. Eastern. It’s only open to New York Times subscribers.

  • Florida has passed a law that will fine social media businesses for the permanent blocking of political candidates’ accounts. The measure is likely to be unconstitutional and unenforceable, Democrats, libertarian groups and tech companies have told my colleague David McCabe, but it is a response to the suspension of former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Twitter.

  • Posting is life. My colleague Taylor Lorenz explains how social media invitations to a teen’s birthday party on TikTok spread and attracted thousands of people and a police crackdown. The event grew, in part because it was an opportunity for attendees to post compelling material online. SIGH.

  • POTUS likes Apple News? I do not like it when computers and smartphones are installed with the device manufacturers’ programs, but it is effective – even with the President of the United States. The Washington Post report that Joe Biden shared human stories from Apple News during the 2020 campaign, which appeared on his iPhone, and apparently did not remove them.

The Linda Lindas are delicious. Here is the talented punk band of four girls between the ages of 10 and 16 – Bela, Eloise, Mila and Lucia – playing “Racist, Sexist Boy” in a Los Angeles public library. The guardian interview with them about their sudden internet fame.

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