Sessions Caves to Trump on Amazon and Facebook

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Tuesday morning, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened a gathering of high-level officials to discuss “a growing concern” that certain companies “may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms,” as he put it earlier this month. According to BuzzFeed, the officials included nine state attorneys general, legal representatives from five other states, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio, and Makan Delrahim, who heads the Justice Department’s antitrust division. What companies were they discussing? As if you couldn’t guess: Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc.

I take a backseat to no one in my belief that the monopolistic tactics of Big Tech need to be curbed. Back when Microsoft Corp. was at the height of its power, entrepreneurs couldn’t get access to capital if there was a chance that their company’s features could be copied by the software giant. That practice changed only after the federal government put Microsoft on trial for violating the nation’s antitrust laws.

Today, Facebook does the same thing, routinely copying popular apps, as the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin demonstrated in an eye-opening story last year. “Tech investors now ask entrepreneurs how they’re going to protect against appropriation by Facebook. If they can’t answer, they don’t get funding,” Hal Singer, a well-known antitrust economist, told me recently.

Meanwhile, Google has been fined $5 billion by the European Union for antitrust violations, primarily for using its Android platform to favor its own products. Amazon’s critics say it does the same. Privacy advocates complain that the big tech companies misuse personal data. Just this week, in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer profiled Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose “forensic examination” of the 2016 campaign has convinced her that without the Russian propaganda effort on U.S. social media sites, Donald Trump would not be president.

The big tech companies are both squelching competition and harming innovation. But, as I’ve noted before, modern antitrust theory is focused almost exclusively on consumer harm, and lacks the tools to grapple with their enormous power. So you would expect me to applaud any effort by the federal government to rethink its antitrust model and try to find ways to rekindle competition and innovation in the arenas Amazon, Facebook and Google play in.

But I’m not applauding. Instead, I’m horrified. Not for the first time, I think this administration is doing something that is so out of line — so outside the norm — that it causes me to fear for our democracy.

Although the meeting might not seem to rank with, say, Trump’s coddling of Russia or his undermining of the Justice Department, it is nonetheless part of what the political scientist Yascha Mounk calls “the authoritarian playbook.” In a chilling essay that Slate published Monday, he described the playbook thusly:

Populists don’t transparently attack democratic institutions. … They don’t admit a wish to overstep the boundaries of the powers accorded to them by any constitution; instead, they say that they are bringing under control hostile institutions that have already done so.

Mounk concluded that in just the 20 months Trump has been in office, the nation’s trust in the rule of law has been seriously damaged, and the functioning of its governmental institutions has become precarious.

What is the purpose of the Sessions meeting if not to begin the process of “bringing under control hostile institutions”? Trump was hammering away at Amazon even before he won the presidency, claiming it had “a huge antitrust problem.” But of course the real problem is that its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post, which criticizes him regularly.

More recently, he has started in on Facebook and Google, echoing the right-wing charge that they are biased against conservative views. To put it another way, Trump doesn’t have real antitrust concerns; rather, he wants to use the government’s immense power to cut down companies he views as enemies.

In using much the same language as the president in unveiling this meeting — and holding it at a moment when these companies are front and center in Trump’s mind — Sessions is sending an unmistakable signal that he is willing to use the Justice Department to target companies that get crosswise with Trump. It is a truly craven act.

Ever since the Constitution was signed, the U.S. has aspired to be a government of laws and not of men. It’s no surprise that Trump doesn’t know any better, but his cabinet members surely do. When Sessions won’t stand up to Trump on a matter like this, when he won’t protect the Justice Department from Trump’s thirst to punish, he is further damaging the rule of law, and making the functioning of our institutions more precarious.

In 2003, Russian authorities arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the country’s richest man and the founder of Yukos, his giant oil company. He would spend the next decade in prison on a series of phony charges. Khodorkovsky suffered this fate not because he had committed a crime but because he dared to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin politically. Putin used the power of the state to crush his enemy.

We are, thankfully, a long way from being the kind of country that operates in that fashion. But we’re closer than we were 20 months ago.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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