From The Wall Street Journal:
Standard Oil and Co. and American Telephone and Telegraph Co. were the technological titans of their day, commanding more than 80% of their markets.
Today’s tech giants are just as dominant: In the U.S., Alphabet Inc.’s Google drives 89% of internet search; 95% of young adults on the internet use a Facebook Inc. product; and Amazon.com Inc. now accounts for 75% of electronic book sales. Those firms that aren’t monopolists are duopolists: Google and Facebook absorbed 63% of online ad spending last year; Google and Apple Inc. provide 99% of mobile phone operating systems; while Apple and Microsoft Corp. supply 95% of desktop operating systems.
A growing number of critics think these tech giants need to be broken up or regulated as Standard Oil and AT&T once were. Their alleged sins run the gamut from disseminating fake news and fostering addiction to laying waste to small towns’ shopping districts. But antitrust regulators have a narrow test: Does their size leave consumers worse off?
By that standard, there isn’t a clear case for going after big tech—at least for now. They are driving down prices and rolling out new and often improved products and services every week.
That may not be true in the future: if market dominance means fewer competitors and less innovation, consumers will be worse off than if those companies had been restrained. “The impact on innovation can be the most important competitive effect” in an antitrust case, says Fiona Scott Morton, a Yale University economist who served in the Justice Department’s antitrust division under Barack Obama.
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“Forty percent of Google search is local,” says Luther Lowe, the company’s head of public policy. “There should be hundreds of Yelps. There’s not. No one is pitching investors to build a service that relies on discovery through Facebook or Google to grow, because venture capitalists think it’s a poor bet.”
There are key differences between today’s tech giants and monopolists of previous eras. Standard Oil and AT&T used trusts, regulations and patents to keep out or co-opt competitors. They were respected but unloved. By contrast, Google and Facebook give away their main product, while Amazon undercuts traditional retailers so aggressively it may be holding down inflation. None enjoys a government-sanctioned monopoly; all invest prodigiously in new products. Alphabet plows 16% of revenue back into research and development; for Facebook it’s 21%—ratios far higher than other companies. All are among the public’s most loved brands, according to polls by Morning Consult.
Yet there are also important parallels. The monopolies of old and of today were built on proprietary technology and physical networks that drove down costs while locking in customers, erecting formidable barriers to entry. Just as Standard Oil and AT&T were once critical to the nation’s economic infrastructure, today’s tech giants are gatekeepers to the internet economy. If they’re imposing a cost, it may not be what customers pay but the products they never see.
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The story of AT&T is similar. It owed its early growth and dominant market position to Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 patent for the telephone. After the related patents expired in the 1890s, new exchanges sprung up in countless cities to compete.
“Just like people joined Facebook because everyone else was on Facebook, the biggest competitive advantage AT&T had was that it was interconnected,” says Milton Mueller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has studied the history of technology policy.
Early in the 20th century, AT&T began buying up local competitors and refusing to connect independent exchanges to its long-distance lines, arousing antitrust complaints. By the 1920s, it was allowed to become a monopoly in exchange for universal service in the communities it served. By 1939, the company carried more than 90% of calls.
Though AT&T’s research unit, Bell Labs, became synonymous with groundbreaking discoveries, in telephone innovation AT&T was a laggard. To protect its own lucrative equipment business it prohibited innovative devices such as the Hush-a-Phone, which kept others from overhearing calls, and the Carterphone, which patched calls over radio airwaves, from connecting to its network.
After AT&T was broken up into separate local and long-distance companies in 1982, telecommunication innovation blossomed, spreading to digital switching, fiber optics, cellphones—and the internet.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal