How John Oliver made technology antitrust a mainstream topic

The tech antitrust debate in Washington, DC, is coming to a head, and the Senate leadership is likely to bring new antitrust legislation to a full floor debate this month. It involves a pair of bills co-sponsored and championed by Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat: the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would ban technology platforms from favoring their own products; and the Open App Markets Act, which would provide smartphone users with more ways to buy apps than just the major Apple and Google app stores.

Meanwhile, the tech industry has spent an estimated $70 million this year alone on lobbying, PR and advertising to stop this pair of bills intended to put restrictions on how big tech companies control the large app store and e-commerce. and make money with it. commerce platforms they operate. A technology industry group, the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which counts Apple, Amazon, Google and Meta as members, launched a $25 million TV ad campaign against the legislation, according to documents obtained by Fast Company. Another industry front group, the American Edge Project, spent about $2.5 million on TV ads that oppose antitrust reform, as well as $1.2 million on online advertising (including on Facebook), documents show. .

But all that effort and money may not have nearly the same effect as a single 26-minute clip from last week’s Last Week Tonight starring John Oliver.

A Last Week Tonight segment that aired Sunday relied on the findings of the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee’s 2021 report on technical antitrust, as well as independent investigations by The Markup and the Wall Street Journal, to argue for increased government oversight. . Oliver methodically explains the various ways in which major technology platforms routinely favor their own products (for example, in searches) and in other various ways take advantage of the independent sellers and app developers who rely on the platforms because they are the only way for them. to reach their customers.

For example, selling through Apple’s App Store is the only way iOS app developers can get their apps on iPhones, and, as Oliver points out, they’re forced to pay a large chunk of every dollar they earn from app sales, in-app sales, even subscriptions. “An innovative app or website or startup may never get off the ground because it could be overloaded,” Oliver says in the segment, “buried in search results or completely ripped off.”

Oliver and his staff have a nose for the grosser excesses of late capitalism, and from time to time they find them in the tech space. The Sunday night show, now in its ninth season, has become a regular source of (what we used to call) Monday water cooler conversations.

The Oliver effect

Oliver’s superpower brings serious social and economic issues into the mainstream by succinctly presenting them, explaining why they matter, and never letting more than 10 seconds pass without a joke. Oliver has created segments on seemingly obscure topics, such as the threat of ransomware, the scourge of debt buyers, and how EMTs are funded. He serves the medicine with a few spoonfuls of candy. He can give the most geek of policy debates, even technical policy issues, the weight of immediacy and importance.

He did it in 2014, when the telecoms companies pressured the FCC to approve a new proposal that would have allowed major ISPs to charge premium rates to direct internet traffic down “fast lanes” for large companies using it. could afford to pay. During the clip, Oliver asked viewers to send electronic messages opposing the proposal to an FCC comment box; about 45,000 did in the days following the episode. Prior to that, most public comments on an FCC rule proposal were less than 2,000. The following year, the FCC passed new net neutrality rules that prohibit ISPs from setting up such high-speed lanes, then successfully defended it in federal court in 2016.

Oliver came back to the issue again in 2017 when the FCC’s net neutrality rules came under fire again, this time by a GOP-majority FCC. By the end of the show, people were excited enough to send 150,000 messages to the agency demanding that network neutrality rules be enforced. (FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has capriciously overturned the rules, despite their overwhelming public support.)

Sunday’s antitrust segment could have a similar impact. It certainly gets a lot of exposure. It originally ran at 11pm Sunday on HBO. In the past, Last Week Tonight had more than a million viewers per show. Reruns were available on HBO Max and HBO Go, and within the first 24 hours, the segment reached more than 2.5 million views on YouTube.

Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, says the show took tech antitrust “mainstream” and could convince senators undecided on the issue to vote for the antitrust laws.

“He made the case for millions of Americans,” said Sacha Haworth, director of the Tech Oversight Project, a tech watchdog. “If congressmen are already hearing from small business owners, sellers on Amazon, advocacy groups like mine, human rights groups, they are now about to hear from more Americans who have just focused on this.”

CCIA President Matt Schruers declined to comment on the segment’s potential impact on public opinion or the political process surrounding the antitrust laws taking place at the Capitol. However, it’s entirely possible that Oliver’s show is attenuating the effects of the CCIA ads, which have been running on 205 radio and cable stations in 17 states and DC since late March.

The CCIA ads claim the bills could “break” Amazon’s free two-day delivery, as well as free services like Google Search and Maps, and expose smartphones to “precious malware”. The Oliver segment features an ad from another industry group, NetChoice (members include Amazon, Meta, and Google), which revolves around a “no-nonsense common man” who jumps out of his pickup truck to proclaim that the technical antitrust laws Amazon will stop offering its popular Prime service, period. “And stay away from my phone,” he adds, nodding at the oft-used claim by antitrust opponents that the Open App Markets Act will open users’ phones to malware.

Such generalities have historically been effective in deterring lawmakers from potentially controversial bills.

“To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Fight for the Future’s Greer, “in terms of specific ad spend and how utterly BS the ads are. They’re aimed at scaring Democrats into tight races, he adds, “hoping Schumer will provide cover to delay an otherwise inevitable floor vote.”

Senate Leader Schumer, who has two children who work for major tech companies — one an Amazon lobbyist and the other a Meta product manager — isn’t the only one who may be seeking cover. Politico has reported that a cadre of Senate Democrats has objected to the bills on the grounds that just months before the midterm elections, when they must defend their seats, they will be forced to take a position on a “possible controversial” issue.

How controversial the bills really are is a matter of perception. The bills have received bipartisan support and polls have shown consistently high levels of public support.

The CCIA surveyed likely voters before and after the ads ran, Axios reports, and found they had led to an 8% drop in support for the antitrust laws. Yet. Haworth says her group has conducted similar polls and has seen support for technical antitrust as high as 80%. Other polls showed similar numbers. Haworth says it’s no surprise that an ad campaign the size of the CCIA’s would have an effect, but the ads would have to take away much more support for the bills to shift the balance of public opinion toward resistance.

The clock is ticking for Klobuchar and the Democrats. As November’s midterm elections get closer, lawmakers will become more distracted and afraid of casting votes that could hurt their chances of reelection. This summer may be the last hurray for the majority to pass the legislation.

The Oliver segment, and the public discussion it is likely to spark, could be the last push Klobuchar and Democrats need to give tech antitrust legislation a fair hearing in the Senate.

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