RILA Calls to Break Up Big Tech

Photo: George Frey (Getty)

You may not have heard of the Retail Industry Leaders' Association (RILA), but by its name could probably be guess, correctly Walmart, Target, Dollar General, Coca Cola and other world-swallowing corporations, most of which have done plenty to win profits at the expense of healthy economy and healthy workers. So it gives me joy to report that, well, they make a pretty compelling case for tech antitrust.

RILA, as it turns out, is feeling just as freaked out by the dominance of a handful of tech giants as the rest of us, and later in the Federal Trade Commission – which, along with the Justice Department, has called on potential firms including tech firms including Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple – it fired its first shot in the ongoing was to break up Amazon, Google, and the rest.

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While activists and, increasingly, politicians have taken up the cause of curbing the unimaginable power these companies have been and exerted with little oversight, this letter is tantamount to 200 of the biggest US companies declaring open season on their ecommerce competitors. Importantly, RILA also represents a handful of ostensible Big Tech allies, with T-Mobile listed as a member, and Accenture and IBM executives sitting on RILA's board.

The first major complaint RILA lodges with search, which allow these companies — namely, Google and Amazon — to dictate what information buyers get before they make a purchase (emphasis ours throughout):

While classical antitrust analysis assumes that customer behavior is driven by prices, the reality is that consumers can only make price-driven decisions if they have accurate, trustworthy, and timely access to information about prices […] Amazon and Google control the majority of all internet product search, and can easily affect whether and how price information actually reaches consumers .

This is not a theoretical complaint either. Amazon already uses design flags like “Amazon's choice” to differentiate certain products, many of which were found to be unreliable. Researchers from Harvard and the University of Oklahoma have also suggested that “Amazon is more likely to target product spaces” and “less likely to enter product spaces that require greater sales growth,” suggesting it uses data harvested through its role as a platform to inform its decision as a seller of a growing number of private-label products.

Of course, it would not be an antitrust argument without any mention of data privacy, which is another RILA area of ​​complaint:

[B] ecause nearly two-thirds of consumers search directly on Amazon when looking for a consumer product, it has a massive amount of data on consumer shopping needs and behaviors. According to its Privacy Notice, Amazon can and has shared consumer data with many unrelated companies, including the largest wireless carriers . Moreover, Amazon does not offer the consumer choice to opt-out of this data sharing. As a result, consumers are asked to make tradeoffs that they cannot anticipate or understand. provide their personal data to Amazon […] or not be allowed to shop on the most widely used platform in the world.

Lastly, RILA hits on something that, at least in the day-to-day reporting of growing anti-monopoly sentiment against tech platforms, tends to get lost: quality. RILA even earmarks this as an issue that is "frequently overlooked in favor of a focus on price." Given that a huge swath of internet services are "free" or near-free (in exchange for your valuable data, an eyeful of ads, or both, of course), the antitrust argument that monopoly power online hard consumers can be hard to prove in a monetary sense. Still, RILA argues:

It is worth observing how the quality of [Google, Facebook, and Amazon] has degraded as these companies shifted from fierce competitors to dominant monopolists. Google search used to be elegant and free from advertising […] Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes recently observed that Facebook's initial innovations — including its “simple, beautiful interface” —represented by the pressure of competition [but] has given way to advertising and interfaces that make it difficult for users to avoid content they do not wish to see.

Obviously, RILA's place in this fight is self-serving: If anyone was hit hardest by ecommerce, it was traditional retail. Still, where reforming antitrust law for the digital age is concerned, RILA is largely right, even if it feels somewhat icky to be agreed with Walmart about anything.

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