It’s been more than 70 years since we’ve seen a broad-based citizens movement against the power of monopoly. It’s long past time for one, and the following story is why.
In late June, the European competition authority handed down a decision against Google for monopolizing the search market and suppressing rivals. It was a classic case of anti-competitive behavior, and the EU made the right decision. What’s interesting, however, is not the decision, but what happened next across the ocean in Washington, D.C.
My group, the Open Markets Program at New America, researches and studies monopoly power. Barry Lynn began this research 15 years ago, and has been building the necessary intellectual and historical grammar to understand the deep dysfunction in our corporate and political sectors. In response to the EU decision, Lynn sent a statement lauding the action. In response, Google had our group kicked out of our parent think tank, New America. Ken Vogel at the New York Times did the story on the specifics of how this happened. The combination, of the misbehavior in the search market and the attempt to suppress research into how Google operates, shows that the actual issue at hand is one of political power.
This moment matters. It matters because it shows that monopoly power, and Google itself, is a threat to the free flow of ideas upon which our democracy depends. It matters because it proves that if we do not stand up to monopolists, they will keep our public institutions quiet about their growing power. And it matters most of all because it shows that we can reclaim our democracy if we try.
At Open Markets, we obviously do not like the attempt at undermining our work, but on another level, we see this as a backhanded compliment by Google on how effective our work has actually been. After all, if we are worth silencing, then our words and research carries power.
Monopoly is a political problem. It is time to stand up for our rights. It is time to say, enough. And as we’ve seen, when we do tell the truth, the monopolists cannot abide.
Google’s tactics will not work. Our organization, Open Markets, is going independent. And we are launching a campaign called Citizens Against Monopoly, where we will ask Google’s CEO to stop this manipulation of our public commons. Join us.
Both what Google did, and what we are doing, are part of a very old story. One might even say it’s the oldest story in America. The British East Indies company attempted to monopolize the tea trade, which helped spark the American Revolution. During debates over early governance in America, James Madison organized our government around the concept of the separation of powers. Early American thinkers did not confined to the purely governmental realm; Thomas Jefferson in 1785 noted that “legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.”
This was a political point about how to organize a democracy. As big business grew up in the late 19th century, antitrust rules were designed to bring this concept into the burgeoning industrial economy. Louis Brandeis, who formalized the 19th century anti-monopoly sentiment into a rigorous doctrine of political economy, called this “industrial liberty,” a parallel to political liberty.
For decades now, we have been in thrall to a different tradition, one that airbrushes the politics out of our commercial sector. But that time is over. What Google did is not abnormal; they fund many nonprofits in D.C. Before Google dominated D.C., it was Too Big to Fail banks, among others, who exerted political power. It is not hard to see the downside of that kind of political power.
It is time for citizens in America and all over the world to stand up to the bullies in our society. It is time to look to the real governors and regulators in America and around the world, the monopolists, and demand our democracy stand against them. It is time for America to come home.