A Return of the Trustbusters Could Harm Consumers

by on April 13, 2021 · 0 comments

Is it a time for the return of the trustbusters? Some politicians seem to imply that today’s tech giants have become modern day robber barons taking advantage of the American consumer and, as a result, they argue that it is time for a return of aggressive antitrust enforcement and for dramatic changes to existing antitrust interpretations to address the concerns associated with today’s big business.

This criticism is not limited to one side of the aisle, with Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) both proposing their own dramatic overhauls of antitrust laws and the House Judiciary Committee majority issuing a report that greatly criticizes the current technology market. In both cases these new proposals create presumptive bans on mergers for companies of certain size and lower the burdens on the government for intervening and proving its case. I have previously analyzed the potential impact of Senator Klobuchar’s proposal, and Senator Hawley’s proposal raises many similar concerns when it comes to its merger ban and shift away from existing objective standards.

Proponents on both sides of the aisle argue changing current antitrust standards is needed to fight big business, but sadly these modern-day trustbusters may not be the heroes they see themselves as. In fact, such a shift would harm American consumers and small businesses well beyond the tech sector.

The Trustbusters-Era Standards Would Fail Consumers

The original trustbusters of the late 19th and early 20th century created a system that was not always clear and could be abused by regulators subjectively determining what was and was not anti-competitive behavior. The result was that, in this earlier era, businesses and consumers could never be certain what behaviors would be considered violations.

The shift to the consumer welfare standard helped fixed that problem by providing an objective framework using economic analysis to weigh the risk and benefits of behavior and judging it based on its impact on consumers and not specific competitors. Unfortunately, these new proposals would shift away from this objective focus and return to a presumption that big is bad. This shift would be bad news not only for big business but for smaller businesses and consumers as well. Small businesses would lose an important exit strategy option with the presumptive ban on mergers with large companies, and consumers would miss out on benefits such as price reductions, improvements, and innovations that these mergers could bring.

While much of the debate around antitrust changes focuses on large tech firms such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, changing antitrust laws would impact far more of the economy than just tech. Both the Hawley and Klobuchar proposals would bar mergers unless there is strong evidence proving their value (a “regulatory presumption” against mergers), but this presumption would impact industries such as pharmaceuticals, finance, and agriculture that also frequently have mergers and acquisitions that benefit consumers by helping to expand the distribution of a product or improve on an existing service. In fact, companies including L’Oreal and Nike could find any mergers or acquisitions presumptively prohibited under the limits in these proposals.

Existing Standards Can Adapt to Dynamic Markets Like Tech

Existing standards are still able to address the concerns associated with this dynamic and changing markets as well as more established markets. For example, the Antitrust Modernization Commission concluded, “There is no need to revise the antitrust laws to apply different rules to industries in which innovation, intellectual property, and technological change are central features.”

Sometimes regulators’ sense of the market in technology may prove to be wrong by the evolution of a technology or the disruption caused by a dramatic shift in the industry. For example, debates used to be focused on MySpace and AOL , which have now become things of internet nostalgia. Today’s tech giants are facing growing challenges not only from each other in many cases, but also from many newer entrants, from ClubHouse and TikTok to Zoom and Shopify. Removing the need to firmly establish the existing standards of an antitrust case would risk unnecessary intervention into the market or, more likely, could prevent actions that benefit consumers.

Some question whether this economic analysis-based standard can handle the zero-price services offered by many technology companies. While price is often the easiest focus, this standard also considers issues such as quality and innovation, making it elastic enough to address potential concerns even if the price is zero. Still, this does not mean that the definition of harm under the consumer welfare standard should be expanded to address any litany of concerns that cannot be objectively shown to have market harm.

Trustbusters’ Concerns with Tech Are Unlikely to Be Solved by Antitrust

Antitrust is also a poor tool to address concerns such as data privacy or content moderation, and using it to do so could allow for future abuse for other political ends. There is no guarantee that smaller companies would respond to existing market demands around issues such as content moderation any differently than the current large players. Additionally, when it comes to privacy and targeted advertising, smaller platforms would have to find new ways to gain revenue and might be forced to monetize the platform more to stay afloat without being able to rely on the revenue from a larger parent company. Finally, there is no guarantee that these smaller companies would be more innovative or dynamic particularly as existing teams and talents are divided by break ups and walls are erected to prevent entry into certain markets.

The good news is some policymakers have realized that these problems exist and argued for preserving the existing framework and addressing these other concerns with appropriately targeted policies. For example, Sen. Mike Lee recently defended the consumer welfare standard and was critical of the negative impact “radically alter[ing] our antitrust regime” could have while still questioning some recent decisions around content moderation.


Many have hoped for a return of bipartisan cooperation in Washington, but unfortunately bad ideas can also emerge on both sides of the aisle. Shifting away from the consumer welfare standard would ultimately harm consumers at a time when innovation and economic recovery are especially critical.

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