Wiser! Essay: BigTech spent record amounts on lobbying and buying up its competition in 2021. Meanwhile, the FTC charged with regulating the Tech Economy has a limited budget and a mountain to climb.
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BackStory: Amazon spent over $20 million on federal lobbying in 2021. In a close second place came MetaFacebook. The world's largest social media platform only spent a couple $100k less than Amazon on promoting their agenda in Washington. That’s an increase of around 7% for both of them on the year before and the most either of them have spent on lobbying.
By comparison, Google (only) spent $10 million on lobbying, which was still a 27% increase over 2020, as did Microsoft. The rest of BigTech dwarfed Apple’s lobbying spend at a mere $6.5 million (maybe that's because Apple's spending is directed towards their most important market, China).
The data comes from filings submitted to Congress at a time when the huffing and puffing continues by US lawmakers. There's lots of talking of a crackdown on BigTech's monopolisation of markets and imposing its sheer scale and dominance to crowd out competition and innovation. But so far, little concrete action.
The BigTech giants are currently focused on the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, known as AICO. This is legislation introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar and Chuck Grassley.
The point of AICO is that it is narrowly targeted at the very biggest in BigTech. It will only apply to tech firms that have at least 50 million US-based monthly active users or 100 million US-based business users. This specifically means Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. And the bill, if passed, would block the BigTech giants from giving preference to their own products or discriminating against rivals on their platforms.
Critics of AICO says that it doesn't go far enough in protecting consumers and is more directed at curbing the way BigTech stifles competition by buying up smaller players.
Punch Bowl News reported that Apple CEO Tim Cook just met with Senators to ask them to oppose the American Innovation and Choice Online Act. As have all the CEOs of the 5 BigTech firms impacted by AICO. According to various reports, the tech giants and their trade associations have "blitzed Capitol Hill" with warnings that the bill would hurt American consumers and disadvantage US companies’ ability to compete with their Chinese counterparts. Interesting, these same warnings have been repeated by several Senators this week.
Amazon, Microsoft and Google's 2021 buying spree
TalkingPoint: Microsoft, Amazon and Alphabet (Google) have announced more deals in 2021 than any other year in the past decade, according to data compiled by Dealogic.
To many, the pace of new acquisitions being signed signals that BigTech is trying to get in front of an upcoming antitrust crackdown led by the new head of the FTC, Lina Khan.
Khan has started as she means to go and be on the front foot when it comes to her agency aggressively enforcing antitrust policy. She has already filed an amended complaint against Facebook claiming its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp contributed to its current status as a social networking monopoly.
Meanwhile, she’s drawn criticism from both Facebook and Amazon that her prior writings and statements about Amazon’s abuses of market power and her work as a White House staffer make her unfit to fairly judge issues of consequence relating to that company.
On top of all this, Microsoft’s announcement of a $68 billion deal to buy video game maker Activision Blizzard is going to add to the challenges for regulators. In anticipation, Microsoft has given itself a 2-year runway to complete the acquisition given the scrutiny that will come from both the US and EU. This follows several large deals from 2021, including Microsoft’s $19 billion purchase of Nuance Communications and Amazon’s $8.5 billion deal for MGM Studios.
Last year, Google's parent company Alphabet made 22 deals at a value of $22 billion. Microsoft did 56 deals totalling $25.7 billion. And Amazon had 29 deals, spending $15.7 billion.
These were 10-year record spending highs for Google and Microsoft. And for Amazon, it was their second-highest spending year, coming behind 2017 when they bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion.
The issue: The amount spent on political lobbying by just Amazon and MetaFacebook alone is more than 10% of the entire FTC budget (that’s the Government body charged with overseeing fair competition). Add in the rest of BigTech and you can see how the tech industry alone can overwhelm the organisation charged with keeping a check on market activity across the entire US economy.
Add in the significant spending on buying up their competition and strengthening their forts and you can see the sheer scale of the problem for the FTC.
But there's nothing new here. The US regs that curb the excesses of BigTech and protect the public and businesses were written back in 1999. They are, by any stretch of the imagination, woefully out of date and overdue an update. However, BigTech has successfully played the lobbying game in Washington for years to delay, deflect and diffuse any attempts by US lawmakers to address some of the fundamental issues with the business models that maintain BigTech's dominant hold over their own section of the Tech Economy.
The balance of power is skewed heavily in favour of the BigPockets of BigTech. Until something changes, I see little chance of any meaningful regulations coming out of the US to curtail the Tech giants, and nowhere near as far as China has gone with their crackdown.
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