THE battle over Amazon — including the siege of Hachette — has heated up lately, with The New Republic’s Franklin Foer and several prominent authors, including Ursula Le Guin, calling the online bookseller “a monopoly.” Foer has argued that it’s time for the Department of Justice to break Amazon up.
This is from his TNR piece, “Amazon Must Be Stopped,” where he calls the firm a monopoly in his first few paragraphs:
That term doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should. Amazon is the shining representative of a new golden age of monopoly that also includes Google and Walmart. Unlike U.S. Steel, the new behemoths don’t use their barely challenged power to hike up prices. They are, in fact, self-styled servants of the consumer and have ushered in an era of low prices for everything from flat-screen TVs to paper napkins to smart phones.
In other words, we’re all enjoying the benefits of these corporations far too much to think hard about distant dangers. Besides, the ideology of Silicon Valley suggests that we have nothing much to fear: If these firms no longer engineer breathtaking technologies, they will be creatively destroyed… The Internet-age monopolies are a different species; they flummox our conventional ways of thinking about corporate concentration and have proved especially elusive to those who ponder questions of antitrust, the discipline of law that aims to curb threats to the competitive marketplace. Part of the issue is the laws themselves, which were conceived to manage an industrial economy—and have, over time, evolved to focus on a specific set of narrow questions that have little to do with the core problem at hand.
Whether Amazon, which does $75 billion in annual revenue, has technically violated antitrust laws is an important matter, of course. But descending into the weeds of predatory pricing statutes also obscures the very real threat. In its pursuit of bigness, Amazon has left a trail of destruction—competitors undercut, suppliers squeezed—some of it necessary, and some of it highly worrisome. And in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette, it has entered a phase of heightened aggression unseen even when it tried to crush Zappos by offering a $5 rebate on all its shoes or when it gave employees phony business cards to avoid paying sales taxes in various states.
The New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, whose work I like most of the time, has a column today that takes issue with Foer and the others. He begins by asking if Amazon is a monopoly, decides that it is not, and then moves to this:
The truth is that American antitrust law is simply not very concerned with the fate of competitors. What it cares about is whether harm is being done to consumers. Walmart has squashed many more small competitors than Amazon ever will, with nary a peep from the antitrust police. Even in the one business Amazon does dominate — books — it earned its market share fair and square, by, among other things, inventing the first truly commercially successful e-reader. Even now, most people turn to Amazon for e-books not because there are no alternatives but because its service is superior.
I’ll disagree with Nocera on a few points, including his line that Amazon earned its market share firmly: Amazon dodged sales taxes for years, setting up unfair competition that allowed it to crush brick-and-mortar bookstores that were not exempt.
But on the larger question of whether Amazon is literally and technically a monopoly: Probably not, but the distinction is not all that important. It’s a bully, it’s destroying important institutions, and it’s getting more and more powerful, and its founder now owns the dominant newspaper in the nation’s capital. Amazon controls roughly half the trade in books in the U.S. We may need a new word to describe what it is, but to sit around and debate terminology as we watch the creative destruction seems to me the worst kind of chattering-class hair-splitting.