Last month, Facebook’s parent Meta Platforms asked an American judge to dismiss the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s lawsuit attempting to block Meta’s proposed acquisition of virtual content producer Within Unlimited- maker of the Supernatural virtual reality fitness app. The lawsuit makes the tenuous, speculative claim that since VR platform Meta already owns many VR apps, including movement-based ones like Beat Saber that compete for users with Supernatural, a “monopoly” will “tend to be created” and competition and consumers will be worse-off if the deal proceeds. Never mind that Supernatural faces competition from more similar squarely fitness-focused VR apps that Meta doesn’t own, like Liteboxer and FitXR, as well as non-VR fitness apps like those offered by Apple and Peloton.
It’s the latest in the FTC’s many efforts, under current chairperson Lina Khan, to more aggressively contest tech acquisitions on the basis that tech giants have too much power and influence, even where harm to consumers is spurious or non-existent. Although large tech giants like Meta, Google and Amazon may indeed be guilty of wrongdoings that warrant legal sanction, the stifling of legitimate business deals by unelected bureaucrats will only harm consumers and the viability of start-ups by deterring competition and innovation in the cutthroat, investment-intensive tech world.
Since the 1970s, antitrust enforcement has focused on whether a business practice actually hurts consumers, rather than harming their competitors or some other stakeholder. After all, elected officials are capable of passing laws that target concrete harms corporations inflict on workers and the public. And private businesses shouldn’t expect protection from cutthroat competition since it’s a consequence of doing business. Consumers benefit from companies having to deliver new, better or cheaper products to attract and retain customers. So long as a firm doesn’t use its position to harm consumers by restricting output relative to prices, there’s no reason why antitrust regulators like the FTC should stifle its expansion. Especially when that expansion benefits consumers.
This is especially true for tech. Start-ups depend on millions in investment to develop and deploy their products. Investors value these firms based not only on the viability of their products, but on the firm’s potential resale value. Larger firms also often acquire smaller ones to apply their resources, existing expertise and economies of scale to further develop their ideas or to expand them to more users.
Making mergers and acquisitions more expensive, without strong evidence they’ll hurt consumers, makes it tougher for start-ups to attract the capital they need and will only deter innovators from striking out on their own or developing ideas that could improve our lives in an environment where 90% of start-ups eventually fail and 58% expect to be acquired.
It doesn’t matter that the FTC’s merger challenges may fail in court or even before their own internal administrative judges, including recently under chair Khan. The risk and cost of lawsuits themselves deter investment and beneficial deals. Especially given the uncertainty posed by incorporating vague, amorphous concepts like “fairness” into antitrust analysis that could lead to arbitrary decisions inconsistent with the rule of law. As noted by the late Supreme Court Justice Stewart, the only consistency in antitrust cases when there’s no clear guiding principle like the consumer welfare standard is that “the government always wins.”
Conversely, opponents of the “consumer welfare” standard, including Khan, argue that it fails prevent the concentration of economic and political power. However, this prioritizes speculative harm from a firm growing too big over real harm from giving governments and regulators ability to wield power for political ends or of those lobbying them.
Former presidents Johnson and Nixon both used threats of antitrust enforcement to coerce media outlets into favorably covering their governments. And it’s no secret or surprise that the FTC is frequently approached by firms urging it to deploy taxpayer resources towards antitrust suits against their competitors. More recently, Mark Zuckerberg, who has openly asked for politicians to tell him what content to censor, admitted that Facebook suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story after government agency pressure. Conservatives should be especially conscious about encouraging agencies to target companies on vague or speculative grounds.
The FTC has the resources it needs to go after malicious actors that definitively harm consumers, as evinced by its multimillion-dollar settlement with extramarital affair website Ashley Madison over poor cybersecurity and data privacy practices and consumer deception, and other successful cases including chair Khan’s commendable pursuit of businesses that illegally collect and misuse children’s data. These are a far better use of the agency’s time and taxpayer funding than a zealous approach to blocking acquisitions and other legitimate business practices that could benefit consumers and that the innovative start-up ecosystem depends on.