Big Tech Has a New Antitrust Nemesis: John Oliver

Big Tech Has a New Antitrust Nemesis: John Oliver

Comedian John Oliver decided to wade into the antitrust battleground this week, and he didn’t hold back any punches.

Oliver devoted 25 minutes of his most recent Last Week Tonight show to discuss general Big Tech badness and advocated in favour of a pair of historic antitrust bills currently being considered in Congress. The comedian zeroes in on claims made by advocacy groups and small businesses that giants like Google and Meta engage in anti-competitive, self-preferencing behaviour that essentially cements their status as unrivalled dominators.

During the segment, Oliver took aim at Apple’s roughly 30% App Store commission fee (referred to as the “Apple Tax” by critics) which he jokingly described as “blood money.” Oliver then took a stab at Google, which he criticised for “exploiting its market dominance” in search. Researchers estimate Google possesses over 90% of the search market share. Oliver cited research claiming two-thirds of all those Google searches never actually result in a user leaving a related Google property. Imagine searching Google for a food recipe only to be directed to an Alphabet owned YouTube video. That, Oliver argues, is self-preferencing in action. “Google’s algorithm shouldn’t determine whether or not someone’s business is real,” Oliver said, referring to businesses like Yelp who’ve accused Google of stealing their content and argued the tech giant’s self-preferencing has limited their visibility and reach.

Oliver took the most issue though with Amazon, which has faced fierce pushback for allegedly prioritising its own in-house brands of products over smaller competitors, essentially gutting small firms in the process.

“Basically, it is Amazon’s playground, they make the rules, and they do seem to win a lot of the time,” Oliver said. “If they [Amazon] are competing with you, you’re basically dead.” He added Amazon is essentially the only place to sell anything on the internet. “Unless that is you’re looking to offload some human teeth because then it’s Craigslist all the way, baby!”

The comedian also briefly touched on the U.S. government’s 1984 breakup of Bell Systems, which he argues led to a number of new innovations like the answering machine and the modem. And while he acknowledged some small reforms have come from both Apple and Google in recent years, Oliver said those came only after relentless activist pressure and numerous lawsuits. Oliver similarly had a bone to pick with Big Tech’s recent arguments against new antitrust measures

“These bills would crack the door back open for innovation and nudge the internet back toward what it was supposed to be from the start: A revolutionary tool that expanded global access to information,” Oliver added.

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The segment aired less than 24 hours before dozens of companies and businesses joined together to write a letter urging Congress to push through a vote on antitrust legislation aimed at limiting tech giants’ abilities to self-preference their own products and services. Those signatories include Yelp, Sonos, the American Booksellers Association, and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, among others.

Oliver’s segment also earned quick praise from some consumer advocacy groups and smaller tech companies who have spent years spotlighting Big Tech’s alleged anticompetitive practices and outsized political power. Fight for the Future, a major advocate for antitrust reforms, spoke favourably of the piece for its clear presentation of the alleged harms carried out by tech companies and for calling out Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s family ties with the very firms the new legislation would try to target.

“A crystal clear explanation of the harm of Big Tech monopoly and self-preferencing, featuring epic takedowns of Big Tech’s lies & cringe,” Fight for the Future Director Evan Greer tweeted.

In an email, Greer pointed to a 2017 Last Week Tonight segment about net neutrality, which Greer says played an important role in galvanizing public support for that issue. It’s possible, Greer added, that this week’s episode could light a similar spark for antitrust reform.

Still, Big Tech firms are pushing hard to prevent these bills from seeing the light of day.

Senior executives at Apple, Google, and Meta have all reportedly spoken with lawmakers to urge them to turn their noses at antitrust reforms. Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly even went as far as to personally contact House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress to try and persuade them to kill the bills.

Outside of the leadership, tech firms are allocating their resources in, at times, sneaky ways. Case in point, a report released last month from the Tech Transparency Project claims Meta single-handedly bankrolled the American Edge Project, a supposedly grassroots organisation hell-bent on opposing antitrust measures. AEP reportedly received $US4 ($6) million in donations from Meta. That $US4 ($6) million figure pales in comparison though to the amount Big Tech’s collectively spending to try and block antitrust reforms. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis released last week, advocacy groups working on behalf of Big Tech spent an eye-popping $US36.4 ($51) million on T.V. and internet ads opposing new legislation. Nearly half ($US13.7 ($19) million) of that funding has come as recently as May 1.

And while most of the attention around anti-competitive behaviour in tech tends to focus on Google and Meta, Apple’s whipping out the big guns as well. In just the first quarter this year, Apple reportedly spent $US2.5 ($3) million on lobbying, which marks a 71% increase from the amount it spent on lobbying the same time last year.

Oliver, for his part, expressed little sympathy for Big Tech’s complaints.

“Ending a monopoly is almost always a good thing,” he said.

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