Last week, the Federal Trade Commission approved the merger between internet-giant Amazon and Whole Foods, the original organic grocer. You may be surprised how quickly the merger passed regulatory muster, especially given the public’s desire for strong antitrust enforcement to promote vigorous competition and equity in our economy, including our digital one. You may be wondering: Is this a case of weak enforcement? Is it proof that today’s antitrust doctrine is useless for digital-age companies? Or are critics of growing digital market concentration simply wrong to express concern? My guess is “none of the above.” Here’s why.
A surefire way to break the ice with someone is to commiserate over your sky-high prices for internet, phone, or TV. Americans are finding that the costs of these services are too much to manage. As AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and Verizon continue to dominate the telecommunications industry, prices for their services have been inflated by about 25% above what competitive markets should deliver.
The recent Internet Day of Action for net neutrality illustrates how intensely consumers feel about net neutrality protections, as more than 50,000 people, websites, and organizations demonstrated in favor of a free and open internet. Many Internet Service Providers claim that they, too, want net neutrality, but with one exception: they don’t want any rules that can be enforced against them. Asking giant internet providers like Comcast to behave is, quite frankly, implausible given their history of anti-competitive behavior.
An enterprising farmer who wants to expand his steak and dairy business but can’t reach beyond his locality. A librarian who sleeps over nights and weekends so that students can come work on projects they’ve been given online. A disabled, bedridden young woman who desperately wants to be self-sufficient but has no access to online education. Two sisters who watch their father die before their eyes because they can’t get a signal to call 911.
This summer, the Copyright Office released a study on Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Section 1201 is the provision of the law that allows copyright owners to digitally lock you out of your own stuff, preventing everything from connecting your cellphone to a different carrier, to ripping your DVDs to your tablet, to accessing the diagnostic system in your car. We’ve long advocated for reforming this law which unnecessarily limits user rights, and actively participated in the Office’s study of Section 1201. The resulting report is less than we hoped for; while the Office has recommended some important and needed changes to the law and its application, it mostly leaves the law in place and has us asking what could have been. The report does, however, reveal something interesting about how the Copyright Office thinks about Section 1201--namely, when it chooses to believe (or not believe) the users.