When Tech Antitrust Failed

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If you’ve wondered recently why prices for e-books seem high, let me tell you why a failure of antitrust law might be (partly) to blame.

A government antitrust lawsuit a decade ago that was intended to push down prices helped lead instead to higher ones.

The outcome suggests that the U.S. government’s lawsuits against Google and Facebook and a just-announced Connecticut antitrust investigation into Amazon’s e-book business may not have the desired effects, even if the governments win. It turns out that trying to change allegedly illegal corporate behavior can backfire.

Cast your mind back to 2012. The second “Twilight” movie was big. And the Justice Department sued Apple and five of America’s leading book publishers in the name of protecting consumers and our wallets.

Book publishers were freaked out about Amazon’s habit of pricing many popular Kindle books at $9.99 no matter what the book companies thought the price should be. Amazon was willing to lose money on e-books, but the publishers worried that this would devalue their products.

The government said that to strike back at Amazon, the book companies and Apple made a deal. Publishers could set their own e-book prices on Apple’s digital bookstore, and they essentially could block discounts by any bookseller, including Amazon.

To the government this looked like a conspiracy to eliminate competition over prices — a big no-no under antitrust laws. Eventually the book publishers settled and Apple lost in court.

Later, Amazon, Apple and other e-book sellers agreed to let publishers enforce e-book prices. The arrangements were legally kosher because they were separately negotiated between each publisher and bookseller. (I can’t answer why Amazon agreed to this.)

The government won but the publishers got what they wanted with e-books. Bookstores can choose to take a loss to heavily discount a print book, but they typically can’t with digital editions. The $10 mass-market e-book is mostly gone.

How did an antitrust case meant to lower prices instead possibly lead to higher prices? Christopher L. Sagers, a law professor at Cleveland State University who wrote a book about the e-books litigation, told me that he believes it’s a failure of corporate antitrust laws.

Professor Sagers and others believe that because a few major book publishers release most mass-market titles, they have the power to keep prices high. He laments that the antitrust laws have failed to stop industries from getting so concentrated. In other words, he thinks it’s bad for all of us that a book-publishing monopoly is trying to fight Amazon’s monopoly.

“American antitrust is basically a failure and this case was a microcosm,” he told me.

Somehow this newsletter keeps coming back to this debate. An influential view — particularly among left-leaning economists, politicians and scholars — is that U.S. antitrust laws or the way they’re applied are flawed. They believe that the government has failed to stop the increasing corporate concentration and mergers in industries like airlines, banking and technology, which has led to higher prices, worse products and income inequality.

In the long run for the book industry and for us, it could be healthy that the artificially low $10 mass-market digital novel is gone. And there are lots of low-priced Kindle works, though, from self-published authors and Amazon’s own book-publishing unit.

Amazon was selling the e-book edition of Professor Sagers’s book about the price-fixing lawsuit for $28.45 on Friday — a price dictated by the book publisher. “I wish it were cheaper,” he said. “I wanted a lot of people to read it.”

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Maybe you bought The Rug recently from Amazon. Or those TikTok leggings that women are showing off. I own the Amazon Coat, the fairly affordable outerwear star from a couple of winters ago.

It’s not unusual for products like these from relatively unknown brands to get popular fast. On social media, word of mouth, smart advertising or the recommendations of influential people can make any product go viral.

And when this happens, it makes me wonder whether the brands that matter most in the stuff we buy are Instagram, Amazon and TikTok — not the companies that actually make the products.

I don’t think anyone referred to it as the “Orolay Coat,” although that was the company that made the Amazon Coat. (I had to check my closet to make sure I got the brand name right.) People who bought The Rug might not know it’s from a company called Rugs USA. It’s just that nice rug they saw on Instagram and bought on Amazon.

And if I quizzed the women making TikTok videos of their favorite new leggings, could they tell you which company made them? Probably more than one company is making similar leggings with a honeycomb pattern? I don’t know, guys, this is not a fashion newsletter.

My point is that the social media sites where we find out about products and the websites where we buy them are far more influential in what we buy than the name that made the product.

Sure, some brands do still matter. You might be devoted to Nike running shoes no matter what. But I bet a lot of other people might search for Nike shoes on Amazon, not find what they’re looking for and buy a different sneaker brand instead.

Amazon already has your purchasing information, you trust the company and it can ship the shoes fast. Amazon might not have made the sneakers, but it’s the brand that matters most.

  • Welp, that was pointless: Remember all the fighting about whether the Trump administration would block TikTok in the United States? Yeah, that went nowhere and now Joe Biden has to figure out what to do about TikTok and other technology from Chinese companies, my colleague David McCabe writes.

  • Facebook’s double standard: The threat of violence from inflammatory posts and misinformation on social media is nothing new in many parts of the world. Adam Satariano says that after Facebook and Twitter suspended President Trump, activists are asking why the companies haven’t acted elsewhere.

  • People are buying houses sight unseen from TikTok? BuzzFeed News digs into house flipping on TikTok and the people making fun of tacky homes and absurd kitchen remodels in TikTok videos.

A raven named Merlina went missing and now Britain is worried the nation will end. Honestly, Brits, explain yourselves.

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