“Letter” Rip: The Justice Department Would Like More Power, Please

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In its first backing of specific antirust legislation, the Justice Department (DOJ) sent a letter in support of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (S. 2992) to Senate leaders this week.

The bill, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Charles Grassley (R-IA), would prevent dominant digital platforms from preferencing their own offerings over those of third parties on the platform.

For consumers, that could mean degraded Google results when you search “X near me” or for local business information, reduced ability of products to work interchangeably, restrictions on Prime shipping and lower-priced generics being shown while shopping, and Amazon and Apple being forced to offer apps that they would otherwise bar for security or privacy concerns.

So, that’s not great.

But we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the Department of Justice is enthusiastic about the bill. Not only has the Biden administration been consistent in picking ideological extremists for antitrust policy positions, but there are practical advantages for the DOJ, too.

An enlarged scope of what behavior is illegal means increased authority and more high-profile cases—with better chances of winning. That’s one of the fundamental dangers of antitrust regulation: It assumes that only business leaders act out of self-interest. DOJ lawyers too are only human; what ambitious attorney wouldn’t like increased press coverage while swinging a recently enlarged hammer?

What is surprising is elected officials’ capacity to deny the political consequences of passing this bill into law. How politically smart could it be to be linked to “breaking Prime” during a time of rising inflation? Or degrading (free!) online services after a pandemic that made them more important and useful than ever before? Or increasing security risks to consumers while they are simultaneously being warned to brace for cyberattacks?   

A lust for more power is to be expected from Washington, but please don’t let them break the Internet.