How John Oliver made tech antitrust mainstream

The antitrust technology debate in Washington, DC is coming to a head, with Senate leaders likely to bring new antitrust legislation to full debate as early as this month. These are two bills co-sponsored and championed by Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota: the US Online Innovation and Choice Act, which would ban tech platforms from favoring their own products; and the Open App Markets Act, which would give smartphone users more ways to buy apps than the major app stores Apple and Google.

Meanwhile, the tech industry has spent an estimated $70 million this year alone on lobbying, public relations and advertising to stop this pair of bills, which seek to impose restrictions on how big tech companies control and monetize the major app store and e-commerce platforms they operate. A tech industry group, the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which counts Apple, Amazon, Google and Meta among its members, has launched a $25 million television ad campaign against the legislation, according to documents obtained by fast business. Another industry front group, the American Edge Project, spent about $2.5 million on television ads opposing antitrust reform, as well as $1.2 million on online ads (including on Facebook), according to documents.

But all that effort and money might not have the same effect as a single 26-minute segment from last week. Last week tonight with John Oliver.

A Last week tonight The segment that aired on Sunday relied on the findings of the 2021 report of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee on Technology Antitrust, as well as independent investigations by people like markup and the the wall street journal, to advocate for greater government oversight. Oliver methodically explains the various ways major tech platforms routinely prioritize their own products (in searches, for example) and abuse independent sellers and app developers who rely on the platforms in various other ways. because they represent the only means for them. to reach their customers.

For example, selling through Apple’s App Store is the only way for iOS app developers to get their apps onto iPhones and, as Oliver points out, they are forced to pay a large chunk of every dollar. that they earn through app sales, in-app sales, even subscriptions. “An innovative app, website, or startup may never get off the ground because it could be overloaded to death,” Oliver says in the segment, “buried in search results or completely ripped off.”

Oliver and his team have a flair for the grosser excesses of late capitalism, and every once in a while they find them in the tech space. The Sunday night show, now in its ninth season, has become a regular source of (what we used to call) water cooler conversation on Mondays.

The Olivier effect

Oliver’s Superpower brings serious social and economic issues into the mainstream by presenting them concisely, explaining why they matter, and never letting more than 10 seconds pass without a joke. Oliver has done segments on seemingly obscure topics, such as the threat of ransomware, the plague of debt buyers, and EMT funding. He serves the medicine with a few spoonfuls of sweets. It can give the cheesiest political debates, even questions of technology policy, the weight of immediacy and importance.

It did so in 2014, when telecoms pushed the FCC to pass a new proposal that would have allowed large ISPs to charge premium rates to route internet traffic over “fast lanes” for large corporations that could afford to. pay. During the segment, Oliver asked viewers to send email messages opposing the proposal to an FCC comment mailbox; around 45,000 did so in the days following the episode. Before that, the most public comments on a proposed FCC rule numbered less than 2,000. The following year, the FCC passed new net neutrality rules prohibiting ISPs from setting up such fast lanes, then successfully defended them in federal court in 2016.

Oliver revisited the issue in 2017 when the FCC’s net neutrality rules came under attack again, this time by a GOP-majority FCC. By the end of the show, people were excited enough to send 150,000 messages to the agency demanding that net neutrality rules be preserved. (FCC Chairman Ajit Pai capriciously overturned the rules anyway, despite their overwhelming public support.)

Sunday’s antitrust segment could have a similar impact in the real world. He definitely gets a lot of exposure. It first aired at 11 p.m. Sunday on HBO. In the old days, Last week tonight exceeded one million viewers per show. Reruns were available on HBO Max and HBO Go and in its first 24 hours the segment reached over 2.5 million views on YouTube.

Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, said the show had caught on to the ‘mainstream’ of antitrust technology and could influence senators who were undecided on the issue to vote in favor of the projects. of antitrust law.

“He made the case to millions of Americans,” says Sacha Haworth, director of the Tech Oversight Project, a technology watchdog. “If members of Congress are already hearing from small business owners, sellers on Amazon, advocacy groups like mine, human rights groups, now they are about to hear more. Americans who just got interested in it.”

CCIA Chairman Matt Schruers declined to comment on the segment’s potential influence on public opinion or the political process around antitrust bills pending on Capitol Hill. It’s entirely possible, however, that Oliver’s show is mitigating the effects of CCIA ads, which have aired on 205 broadcast and cable stations in 17 states and DC since late March.

The CCIA ads claim the bills could ‘break’ Amazon’s 2-day free shipping, as well as free services like Google Search and Maps, and expose smartphones to ‘expensive malware’. The Oliver segment features an ad from another industry group, NetChoice (members include Amazon, Meta and Google), which focuses on a “regular, no-frills guy” who jumps out of his van to proclaim that tech antitrust bills will stop Amazon to offer its popular Prime service, period. “And stay off my phone,” he adds, nodding to the claim often used by antitrust opponents that the Open App Markets Act will open up users’ phones to malware.

Such generalities have in the past been effective in scaring lawmakers off potentially controversial bills.

“To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Fight for the Future’s Greer, “in terms of ad spend in particular and how completely BS the ads are. Democrats in close races,” he adds, “hoping this will allow Schumer to delay an otherwise inevitable floor vote.

Senate Majority Leader Schumer, who has two kids working for big tech companies — one an Amazon lobbyist and the other a Meta product manager — isn’t the only one seeking cover. Policy reported that an executive of Senate Democrats has expressed opposition to the bills on the grounds that they will be forced to take a stand on a “potentially controversial” issue just months before the midterms, when they will have to defend their seats.

The degree of controversy of bills is a matter of perception. The bills have enjoyed bipartisan support, and polls have consistently shown high levels of support among the public.

The CCIA conducted a survey of potential voters before and after the ads aired, Axios reports, and found that they caused an 8% drop in support for the antitrust bills. Still. Haworth says his group did the same kind of polling and saw support for tech antitrust as high as 80%. Other polls have shown similar numbers. Haworth says it’s no surprise that a CCIA-sized ad campaign had its effect, but the ads should have reduced support for the bills much more to sway public opinion toward their opposition.

For Klobuchar and the Democrats, time is running out. As November’s midterm elections draw closer, lawmakers will become more distracted and afraid to vote, which could hurt their chances of re-election. This summer could be the majority’s last hurrah to pass the legislation.

The Oliver segment, and the public debate it is likely to spark, could be the final push Klobuchar and Democrats need to give tech antitrust legislation a fair hearing in the Senate.

Jessica C. Bell