In 1980, there were over 4,000 Fotomats around the United States. Time was when you had pictures to develop, you took your film to a physical location. Fotomat was frequently the choice. Some might have said monopoly. The good news is that in commerce, the present is always and everywhere a look into the past.
This truth is plainly lost on former attorney general William Barr. He’s sadly shrunk himself to bragging that the “Antitrust Case Against Google Was a Republican Project.” Save his opinion piece. It won’t age well except as yet another monument to the absurdity of antitrust law. Where to begin?
Barr, seemingly mimicking George W. Bush’s classic line about believing in markets except for when those markets have a harsh message, claims in his attack on Google that “Republicans understand that protecting free markets sometimes requires confronting companies that use anticompetitive tactics.” Sorry, but markets aren’t ideological nor do they show favoritism, they just are. To say you’re situationally for free markets is to say you’re situationally for reality.
Barr wraps the above contradiction in an odd assertion that “rival search engines are deprived of the data and scale they need to improve and compete.” Such a view implies that search is the frontier of data and information acquisition when entrepreneurial logic indicates the opposite. Google’s enormous market capitalization explains why: precisely because Google is so valuable, there’s enormous amounts of investment being directed toward entrepreneurs who aim to knock Google off of its perch. In other words, if the goal is to achieve competition for Google, Barr should be cheering it on fully certain that like every other dominant business in the history of enterprise, Google will soon enough be vanquished by competition that sees the future differently, and more perceptively, than it presently does.
Important about the previous assertion is that Barr knows it to be true. In his words from the opinion piece being critiqued here, Barr recalls that after working in the George H.W. Bush administration, he worked as general counsel for a telecom company, and “experienced firsthand the digital revolution that transformed our economy.” Notable about the latter is that upon returning to government in 2019, Barr saw that “what once were upstart innovators in the nascent online ecosystem had become giants ruthlessly entrenching their market dominance.” Well, yes. The digital revolution attracted copious amounts of investment in much the same way that “Big Tech” success today is attracting enormous investment meant to eclipse the giants of technology today. Trillion dollar market cap achievement attracts a lot of intrepid investment eager to eclipse what’s relevant today with an eye on even greater market capitalization tomorrow.
Barr embarrassingly asserts that it was U.S. v. Microsoft in 2000 that “helped new tech monopolies like Google emerge,” which is Barr telling readers once again that he likes free markets except for the myriad times when he doesn’t like free markets. Furthermore, he misses the point. In reality, the DOJ was superfluous on the matter of Microsoft. What tripped it up was the historical truth that giants invariably stumble. In Microsoft’s case, it missed the boat on social media, smartphones, quite famously for the purposes of this write-up it was late on search, which by extension signals that Microsoft was late on the internet itself.
About search, Barr contends that “Google has paid tens of billions of dollars to industry partners to make it as hard as possible for users to go anywhere else – as Microsoft made it almost impossible to avoid Internet Explorer in the late 1990s.” Oh my! Barr’s point seems to be that the former minnow in Google somehow outspent Microsoft to achieve search dominance, but if Microsoft had seen the future in the way that Google did way back when, the Seattle giant would have and could have purchased Google for a tiny fraction of its present valuation. “Monopoly” problem solved well ahead of time! Barr then tacks to the old Internet Explorer (IE) as his example of what rich companies can do to force us to use their products??? Except that IE was discontinued by Microsoft in 2022. Progress is a bitch, one presumes. Whatever Barr claims Microsoft was doing, it couldn’t keep users from migrating to better options than IE, including Google Chrome.
After which, Barr contradicts himself yet again. If Google has a monopoly on search, why the need to spend “tens of billions of dollars” to maintain it? Naturally Barr doesn’t answer the previous question. How could he? To answer it would be for Barr to acknowledge that far from a monopoly (as though that’s a bad thing – it’s not), Google competes feverishly to maintain its position as the top search engine.
Rather than address this, or Microsoft’s own ability to pay tens of billions of its own dollars to win preferential placement, Barr finds more ways to contradict himself. He claims that in reality, Google “isn’t worried about its competitors” which, if it weren’t, it yet again wouldn’t spend tens of billions to compete. Which amounts to Barr wanting it all ways: Google is a monopoly that doesn’t care about competition but in fact does care about competition such that it works hard to maintain its status as the search engine of choice. About this, Barr says the latter is “incredibly valuable precisely because users rarely change” what they use. Actually, that’s not true. See Internet Explorer once again to see why it’s not.
From there, stop and think once again what Barr is saying in his shameful attack on Google: he’s saying Google is dominant in search, and always will be. Sorry, but commerce doesn’t work that way. We can’t know what will replace Google, and if we could we would soon be billionaires. All we know is that in commerce, the present is once again always the past. Which should have Barr worried.
It should because actual commerce is always running miles ahead of the antitrust ankle biters in Washington. In other words, the fact that Barr discovered search is the surest sign that the market is about to shift, followed by deserved heaps of embarrassment for Barr. Again, dominance attracts investment. As this is being read, ChatGPT and other advances threaten to rewrite how we use the internet. Google knows this, it’s spending tens of billions more to find out what the future will be, but Barr doesn’t. He’s chasing Fotomat while Google is expensively searching for the future.
Republished from RealClear Markets