Department of Justice antitrust chief Makan Delrahim is looking for real-world examples of anticompetitive behavior as part of the department's ongoing inquiry into "the competitive conditions under which online platforms operate."
Delrahim and Justice have been looking into how Big Tech got that way, and whether any anticompetitive red flags were missed in the series of mergers, often with smaller start-ups fueled by venture capital, that allowed edge providers to become mammoth players in the U.S. and world economy.
As part of a workshop at Stanford University Wednesday (Feb. 21) on venture capital and antitrust, Delrahim gave out an email address (ATR.VCworkshop@usdoj.gov) that his audience could use to email their questions or reactions to the discussion in real time, or perhaps something more.
"We hope that today’s discussion will be so dynamic that you will want to get involved by emailing your thoughts," he said, "or maybe even your concerns about anticompetitive conduct you have witnessed, to our DOJ email account." He promised them anonymity and/or confidentiality.
Delrahim talked at the workshop about how both venture capitalists and antitrust regulators have to look at a market and make educated predictions about what might happen to businesses in the future.
"In painting a picture of monopoly power, antitrust enforcers predict how diminished competition will result in the monopolist raising prices, or reducing quality. Of course, a common argument by defendants in antitrust cases is that the future of the market will not allow them to exercise that monopoly power," Delrahim told the audience. "Instead, they argue that disruptive innovation is just around the corner.
"To address these arguments, antitrust enforcers often have to think hard about where innovation will really come from, or whether it will come at all. That means thinking a bit like a venture capitalist to assess whether a new platform or startup will actually be able to challenge those in power today."
Delrahim signaled what he hoped to get out of the workshop: 1) What does the VC think is the likelihood that some future disruptive innovation will challenge the current tech giants; 2) "Are any of today’s digital platforms so dominant, with such a capability to restrict access to inputs or to distribution of products, that investors are not willing to develop products that rely on those platforms"; 3) "Where are we in the life cycle of the market for data about how people interact with websites, and with their phones or wearables?"; and 4) what tools does the VC community use to evaluate transactions that Justice could use to determine whether a merger stems from the desire to create value for consumers or to prevent competition.
He said of number three above that it was part of a larger national debate about data privacy and he asked if his audience had a sense of the value of data in different markets and how consumers may be served by rules that allow collection and use of data.
That data is currently the currency that pays for the free internet content model the nation and the world have come to expect, but its sharing with third parties and more than occasional insecurity have raised questions about whether the price in lost privacy for that content is too high.