As far as most of us are concerned, Alex Jones is gone now — banished from the more mainstream corners of the Internet by the platforms that manage it. His forced absence nevertheless threatens to corrupt the most important economic policy debate in America.
Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened a collection of state attorneys general and Justice Department officials to consider how to address the growing power of the country’s new, online monopolists — Facebook, Google, Amazon and other major digital platforms. The meeting spurred more discussion in the national media about a draft executive order asking federal watchdogs to examine those tech giants and, if needed, employ the country’s most powerful economic weapon — antitrust law — to break them up or otherwise force them to change the way they treat consumers and competitors.
For Jones and his ravenous online followers, it’s a wish come true.
Jones and his supporters — from the deepest pits of the conspiracy web to the Oval Office — claim that the major tech platforms’ decision to de-platform Infowars had broken the nation’s century-old antitrust laws: “This violates federal election laws, it violates [the Sherman Antitrust Act], it just violates everything that’s near and dear to this country,” Jones told the Washington Times. Trump’s rumored executive order would urge the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission to take stock of complaints against the tech giants and, if needed, use those laws to punish them for those alleged wrongdoings.
For much of the past two years, antitrust thinkers left, right and center have been wrestling with the digital giants’ growing power, trying to determine whether our antitrust laws can and should be used to rein them in. Viewpoints vary, from the pro-enforcement Open Markets Institute to former Federal Trade Commission member Joshua Wright and his libertarian-leaning work at George Mason University, but the debate has risen well beyond the ivory tower to the halls of government and in the popular press.
That conversation is important, for the economy and democracy, and trustbusters are taking big tech’s power seriously; last month, Europe’s top antitrust cop said it was investigating Amazon’s role as both the world’s most powerful online shopping mall, and a merchant of everything from diapers to streaming movies. Complaints from Jones and others threatens to poison that debate and turn antitrust laws into the political weapons they were never intended to be.
Claiming that he had been “unpersoned” and “disappeared” after he was removed from the tech platforms, Jones suggests that without Facebook, YouTube and so on, he and others are unable to compete for an audience. Anyone can broadcast a thing on their own, but without the big platforms to amplify their voices and deliver an audience, Jones and others become the proverbial tree falling in the woods.
His supporters agree. From President Trump down through the White Rabbit-filled conspiracy pits of 8chan, the right in America believes online mega-sites like Twitter, Amazon and Facebook have not only amassed the power to silence discourse, but that they’re using it.
Does de-platforming Jones or “shadow-banning” conservatives actually mean Facebook and Twitter broke the antitrust laws? Not for that reason. But Jones’s complaints get to an important question as we think about how to organize the economy: Does the undeniable power that Facebook, Google and others have over our online lives — whether we’re shopping for shoes or watching Infowars — pose an economic danger that requires some kind of intervention?
Again, this question is a subject of debate around the world. The trouble is that even if Jones and his supporters were correct, and those digital platforms have indeed abused their power and harmed the American public, Jones’s complaints are made in bad faith. Rather, the complaints look like unvarnished political attacks meant to punish the perceived “left” and shield hate speech. And the mere perception that the antitrust laws are being used to such political ends would undermine their power to truly police the economy, spoiling any legitimate attempt to check the power of the tech platforms.
The right’s identification of the antitrust laws as a means for overthrowing what the president and his allies see as their undeserving liberal overlords is not new; the notion came about well before Trump last month said he sees Facebook, Google and Amazon as “a very antitrust situation.”
Trump’s suggestion that his administration weaponize antitrust laws to take down those online giants, which he sees as political opponents, closes a feedback loop that began before his election. On the campaign trail, he lashed out at concentrated corporate power, particularly among media companies. He similarly identified Amazon as having a “huge antitrust problem.”
Trump’s attack on corporate power more or less ended there: The tax cuts he championed and signed into law disproportionately benefited wealthy corporations, and while his Justice Department continues to fight against the AT&T/Time Warner merger, it has generally been permissive of corporate megadeals — DuPont and Dow Chemical, ChemChina and Syngenta and a modified deal between Bayer and Monsanto. The White House’s allegations of antitrust fouls from powerful corporations fell largely silent.
Reasonable people can disagree whether Facebook, Twitter and others could have broken the law in de-platforming Jones and his ilk. Jones’s suggestion that without those powerful websites, programming like his struggles to find viewers and attract advertisers seems plausible. But the real antitrust violations lie in the specifics of each company’s actions in wholly different domains: Google shouldn’t be allowed to force Android customers to use Google Maps and search. Similarly, Amazon’s role as both the world’s most powerful online sales platform and a direct competitor with companies that rely on Amazon to sell their products is, on its face, problematic.
Rather than a legitimate antitrust issue, Trump and the right see de-platforming of Jones and Infowars as another salvo in an ongoing battle over culture in America. Trump talks a lot about fairness. But he and Jones want American companies — and, by extension, Americans — to accept that hate speech, dangerous conspiracies and even violent threats are part of tolerable discourse, and that Facebook, Twitter and Google have a legal obligation to create space for those ideas.
Even under accepted antitrust standards, treating Facebook, Twitter and Google as essential, and removing their right to decide who gets to use their platforms, stretches the reach of the law. That Jones has had access to so many potential hosts for his odious speech — including Apple’s iTunes, Spotify and so on — suggests there’s a lot of competition out there, and the platforms have every legal right to pick and choose the content they want to host.
Whether Facebook and others have the kind of power Jones and Trump attribute to them is an important question. The answer to that question, and the resulting antitrust enforcement or legislation, will shape the future of the country, the economy and everything else.
But in the future Jones wants, antitrust would not be an impartial tool to police powerful companies. Instead, Jones and the right intend to use the antitrust laws as a cudgel with which to punish their enemies. This should be worry us. Trustbusting is an American institution. Trump and Jones shouldn’t be allowed to taint it.