Staff Columnist

Iowa is leading the two-party tizzy over Big Tech

When Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren and Mark Zuckerberg all agree on something, Americans ought to be skeptical.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust on Capitol Hill on We
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

We have a saying in right-wing politics that there is a stupid party and an evil party in the United States; when they do something both stupid and evil, it’s called bipartisanship.

So when almost every state attorney general in the nation, Republicans and Democrats, come together for a single cause, count me as a skeptic.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is leading a new lawsuit against Facebook, joined by 47 of his colleagues from around the country. They allege Facebook is harming consumers with its services that cost consumers $0.

The attorneys general’s suit is coordinated with a separate Federal Trade Commission suit, both of which accuse the social media company of anti-competitive conduct.

Facebook, which has invested millions in data centers in Iowa, acquired the photo sharing app Instagram and the instant messaging service WhatsApp in 2012 and 2014, with approval from federal and foreign regulators.

The company grew Instagram from a tiny firm into a major social media service. It eliminated the subscription fee and enhanced privacy features on WhatsApp, creating a free and secure alternative to SMS messaging across the world.

Consumers liked that, as evidenced by the apps’ wild success. State and federal governments hate it. They’re seeking to restrict Facebook’s future business transactions and potentially break up the company.

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“Facebook’s market dominance means users have nowhere else to go for its services, and the company is able to make decisions that put profits over the interests of users,” the Iowa Attorney General’s Office wrote in a statement announcing the lawsuit against Facebook.

Nowhere else to go? In fact, pretty much all of Facebook’s services are offered by competing firms. The industry trend is for social media companies to duplicate each other’s features. We have Fleets, Snaps, Stories and TikToks, take your pic.

Miller’s lawsuit is the latest in a series of political and legal attacks against tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Amazon. In essence, the companies are accused of offering products that are too useful to consumers.

“Google discovered that it could increase the number of clicks — and its own profits — by ranking ads to promote those with greater relevance,” Republican attorneys general wrote in a federal lawsuit filed this year accusing Google of monopoly behavior.

Panic over Big Tech’s influence has grown out of control since 2016, when Democrats convinced themselves that a relatively small number of poorly crafted Russian memes unduly swung the election in Donald Trump’s favor. They’re joined by Republicans who think the liberal tech workforce is distorting public discourse to benefit the left. Evidence on both sides is tenuous.

It is a rare point of agreement among elite Republicans and Democrats: Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and the foreigners who made TikTok are bad guys who threaten our democracy, our economy and our very way of life. Politicians copied and pasted moral outrages of the past and updated a few details to fit the current narrative.

Big Tech’s denigrators are as diverse as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard. Proposed solutions range from perverting internet law to make social media companies liable for content users post, to outright busting the companies up.

Regardless of whether any of the court cases against tech companies are successful, there’s a strong bipartisan consensus in Congress that something must be done. When Republicans and Democrats get together to do something for the sake of doing something, Americans often suffer from unintended but foreseeable consequences.

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The quest to bolster competition could well backfire. Facebook, for its part, welcomes a new regulatory regime to address the perceived issues.

“We have called for new regulation to address some of them on an industrywide basis. ... Those hard challenges are best solved by updating the rules of the internet,” Facebook general counsel Jennifer Newstead wrote in a blog post responding to the new lawsuit brough by Miller at his peers.

Those “rules of the internet” are certain to carry extra compliance costs that Facebook and other huge corporations are prepared to cover, with their legions of well compensated lawyers and lobbyists. It’s small companies, Facebook’s potential competitors, that would be stifled by complicated new regulations. The rules would enrich existing firms at the expense of consumer choice.

When Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren and Mark Zuckerberg all agree on something, Americans ought to be skeptical.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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