About 16 years ago, at the end of the Clone Town Britain campaign at the New Economics Foundation, I became interested in the whole business of anti-trust.
As part of that – and part of finding out why the UK regulators lacked enthusiasm for re-opening the groceries market inquiry – I organised a seminar at UCL to meet key people at what was then the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading.
As we went around the room introducing ourselves, it became clear that most of those who had turned up from the Commission absolutely hated us. “What should we say?” hissed one of my colleagues.
“We will respond in a manner and at a time of our choosing,” I replied, quoting George W. Bush about his previous terrorist outrage.
As we did when we wrote up the seminar for a report.
Looking back on the experience, more than a decade later – which was fascinating – a number of things seem clearer.
Most of those who came from the Competition Commission were there on secondment from the European Commission. They hated us because we were ignorant of the legal niceties of monopolies.
And because we had been making public pressure on them to reopen the inquiry into Tesco’s dominance of the groceries market (they were then on 33 per cent – not much compared to some of the American oligopolies, but still no grocer had ever achieved that kind of dominance in the UK before).
I believe they saw their role as building up European trusts to counter the American ones. In other words, they didn’t believe in free and open markets, any more than the Americans did – and they regarded us as trying to queer their pitch.
And no, I don’t believe that American regulators believed in them either – because they were under the influence of Milton Friedman and Robert Bork, who did not believe monopolies existed.
American policy on monopoly over the past two decades has been almost non-existent – it simply meant the right of the most powerful and the strongest to ride roughshod over everyone else.
That isn’t a market at all. It is more like a bear-bating pit.
We have now seen where that leads to – primarily to market distortions, predatory pricing, a lack of competition and to inflation.
Which brings me to last week, when the successor to the Competition Commission – the Competition and Markets Authority, or CMA – was congratulated by anti-trust campaigners in the USA for intervening to block the takeover by Microsoft of the gaming company Activision.
It was through that seminar in 2007 that I eventually met Barry Lynn, who had set up the Open Market Institute after he had been sacked by the New America Foundation for publicly criticising Google.
Now even Joe Biden himself claims to be on the side of anti-trust.
Lynn was recently giving evidence to a senate committee about a new bi-partisan bill for what should be called for the AMERICA Act (Advertising Middlemen Endangering Rigorous Internet Competition Accountability Act).
This would prevent corporations that make $20 billion in ad revenues from operating in multiple parts of the market that connects news publishers with advertisers, known as the ‘ad tech stack’.
It would force Google, Facebook, and Amazon to sell on key ad tech operations, allowing them to earn ad revenues only by selling ads on platforms they own. The bill also separates the ad tech market horizontally, and would ban brokers from acting simultaneously as both a seller and buyer of advertisements.
Facebook’s response has been to plough $34m into a lobby group dedicated to opposing anyone from regulating the internet giants.
My reason for explaining this breakthrough is that people on the side of the tech sector believe that, because we resist a monopolistic takeover, that somehow Britain’s reputation for being open for business has been damaged.
That is Bork-style thinking, and I congratulate the CMA’s chair and chief executive for facing them down.
If we fail to dodge either the Old American approach of monopoly blindness or its child, the European approach of sending European oligopolies to sight them, that might indeed have been mad for business.
Instead, we are moving slowly – on both sides of the Atlantic – towards a position where the best option for effective and efficient business would be to let a thousand flowers bloom.
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