“The Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse” Symposium to Include Leading Legal Scholars, Economists, and Technologists

By
Katy Glenn Bass
July 11, 2019

Earlier this year, we announced that the Knight Institute will host a symposium in the fall focused on the use of anti-monopoly tools to address the tech giants’ power over public discourse. The symposium, which will take place on November 14 and 15 at Columbia University, will examine the extent and nature of the technology giants’ ability to structure, shape, and distort public discourse, and consider whether anti-monopoly tools might usefully be deployed to limit, expose, or counter this power.

Since we announced the symposium, these questions have become only more salient. Some have called it an “antitrust moment,” with Congress, the Justice Department, and the Federal Trade Commission having launched investigations, multiple presidential candidates having called for more aggressive enforcement of the antitrust laws, and the tech giants having begun to respond. Our symposium will look at these and other developments through the lens of public discourse, asking, among other questions, whether concentration within the technology industry is a threat to free speech and self-government; what lessons might be drawn from earlier efforts to regulate the telecommunications industry and the media; and what the implications of “breaking up” the technology giants would be for the diversity and quality of online speech.

We're excited to announce today that the following legal scholars, economists, and technologists will be writing papers for the symposium and participating in the November event.

Neil Chilson and Casey Mattox (Koch Institute) will argue that unleashing antitrust regulators to pursue non-competition-related goals would undermine our progress in free expression and arm government with new ways to threaten private speech.

Daniel Crane (University of Michigan) will excavate the First Amendment threads running through Progressive and New Deal-era antitrust cases to show how the Supreme Court has previously wrestled with the application of the antitrust laws to commercial arrangements that affect the free flow of ideas.

Evelyn Douek (Harvard Law School) will argue that the growing calls for platforms to cooperate to fight speech-related harms (like terrorism and hate speech) may create a threat to the public sphere that is just as pernicious as monopoly power: the rise of content cartels.

Ellen P. Goodman (Rutgers Law) will explore platform transparency requirements aimed at improving digital information integrity and enhancing user freedom, including source disclosure, audience composition data, and deep fake detection alerts.

Lina Khan (Columbia Law School) will ask whether specific anti-monopoly tools—like engendering competition in digital ad markets, select vertical break-ups to forestall conflicts-of-interest, or prohibitions on certain business models—could promote the vitality of public discourse or the freedom and diversity of the media.

Genevieve Lakier (University of Chicago Law School) will argue that concerns over the likelihood the First Amendment could be used to strike down regulations on tech platforms aimed at promoting privacy, equality, and democracy are exaggerated, and discuss the many kinds of internet regulation that the First Amendment should not foreclose under existing precedents.

Andrea Prat (Columbia University) will propose a new way to measure media plurality, going beyond standard market-share indices to instead look more deeply at which sources individual voters look to for political news, and using that information to form an “attention-share based media power index” that could be employed when conducting reviews of proposed media company mergers.

K. Sabeel Rahman and Zephyr Teachout (Brooklyn Law School and Fordham Law School) will argue for regulating online communications infrastructure through structural reforms applying public utility and anti-monopoly concepts to support First Amendment values of speech, association, and democracy.

John Samples and Paul Matzko (Cato Institute) will urge caution to would-be regulators of social media and the internet, looking at four occasions in the past when government officials used media regulation to control new communications technologies that threatened their political standing.

Ganesh Sitaraman (Vanderbilt Law School) will argue that the U.S. should provide a counter-model to the rise of digital authoritarianism observed in other countries, by breaking up tech companies, adopting regulations to prevent surveillance capitalism, and investing heavily in a public option for artificial intelligence infrastructure.

Tim Wu (Columbia Law School) will look at the Noerr-Pennington doctrine – a doctrine at the intersection of the First Amendment and antitrust law – which provides an exception to antitrust liability for conduct that can be described as political or legal advocacy. Wu will argue that Noerr immunity relies on an exceptionally stylized and now largely inaccurate model of politics and should be curtailed.

Ethan Zuckerman (MIT Media Lab) will make the case for public social media – using public broadcasting as a model for building new online spaces dedicated to helping us interact with each other in ways that make democracies stronger, on platforms that are fully interoperable with existing social networks.