Shane and Richard on Dominant Platforms and Market Power

In the 51st High Tech Forum podcast, Shane and Richard discuss Congressional attention to dominant Internet firms. We review the previous post on Google and discuss the House Subcommittee on Antitrust’s recent field hearing in Boulder, Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 5: Competitors in the Digital Economy.

The hearing featured testimony from Sonos CEO Patrick Spence, PopSockets CEO David Barnett, Tile Chief Counsel Kirsten Daru, and Basecamp CTO David Hansson. Each witness has issues with one or more of the Big Four Internet platforms, Google, Facebook, Apple, or Amazon.

We covered the Sonos issues with Google in the previous post, so no need to repeat them here. PopSockets recounted bullying by Amazon, where the company demanded price reductions after reducing its retail price. There was nothing in the contract that permitted this, but Amazon demanded it anyway.

Basecamp faces extortion from Google Search. Google sells ads triggered by searches to Basecamp to Basecamp’s competitors, so it has to buy ads triggered by its own name just to show up at the top of the results users see when searching for its own domain name. Google sells more and more ads, so organic search results are harder to find.

Tile faces a subtle problem with Apple in terms of ultra-wideband (UWB) communication. This is a system that I worked on in the early 2000s that uses pulsed radio signals on very wide channels to achieve unlicensed use of spectrum used by licensed systems.

The UWB standard I worked on – IEEE 802.15.3a – was a flop, but the new 802.15.4/4x system is useful for location sensing and low-bandwidth communication. Apple rolled it into the iPhone 11, but it hasn’t allowed third parties like Tile to use it. Limiting access to a superior location technology gives Apple a leg up on selling its own version of Tile.

So we have a number of issues that may or may not be lawful but are pretty clearly unfair and anti-competitive. What’s Congress going to do about platform power and competition? This question remains to be answered, but the podcast suggests a good way for it to start.