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How John Oliver helped take the issue of tech antitrust into the mainstream

Two bills reining in the power of major platform operators, including Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon, could finally reach a full Senate floor debate this summer. But time is running out as midterm elections loom.

How John Oliver helped take the issue of tech antitrust into the mainstream

The tech antitrust debate in Washington, D.C., is coming to a head, with Senate leadership likely to bring new antitrust legislation to a full floor debate as soon as this month. At issue are a pair of bills cosponsored and championed by Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat: the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would prohibit tech platforms from favoring their own products; and the Open App Markets Act, which would give smartphone users more ways to buy apps than just the major Apple and Google app stores.

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Meanwhile, the tech industry has spent an estimated $70 million this year alone on a lobbying, PR, and advertising push to stop this pair of bills, which are intended to place restrictions on how big tech companies control and monetize the major app store and e-commerce platforms they operate. One tech industry group, the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which counts Apple, Amazon, Google, and Meta as members, launched a $25 million TV ad campaign against the legislation, according to documents obtained by Fast Company. Another industry front group, the American Edge Project, spent roughly $2.5 million on TV ads opposing antitrust reform, as well as $1.2 million on online ads (including on Facebook), documents show.

But all that effort and money may not have nearly the same effect as a single 26-minute segment from last week’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

A Last Week Tonight segment that aired on Sunday relied on the findings of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee’s 2021 report on tech antitrust, as well as independent investigations by the likes of The Markup and the Wall Street Journal, to make the case for more government oversight. Oliver methodically explains the various ways in which big tech platforms routinely give preference to their own products (in searches, for example) and abuse in other various ways the independent sellers and app developers who rely on the platforms because they represent the only way for them to reach their customers.

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For instance, selling through Apple’s App Store is the only way iOS app developers can get their apps onto iPhones, and, as Oliver points out, they’re forced to pay a large chunk of every dollar they make from app sales, in-app sales, even subscriptions. “An innovative app or website or startup may never get off the ground because it could be surcharged to death,” Oliver says in the segment, “buried in search results or ripped off completely.”

Oliver and his staff have a nose for late capitalism’s grosser excesses, and from time to time they find them within the tech space. The Sunday night show, now in its ninth season, has become a regular source of (what we used to call) water cooler conversation on Monday.

The Oliver Effect

Oliver’s superpower is bringing serious social and economic issues into the mainstream by presenting them concisely, explaining why they matter, and never letting more than 10 seconds go by without a joke. Oliver has done segments on seemingly obscure topics, such as the threat of ransomware, the scourge of debt buyers, and how EMTs are funded. He serves up the medicine with a few spoonfuls of sweets. He can give the nerdiest of policy debates, even tech policy issues, the weight of immediacy and importance.

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He did it in 2014, when the telecoms were pushing the FCC hard to pass a new proposal that would have allowed big ISPs to charge premium rates to convey internet traffic over “fast lanes” for big companies that could afford to pay. During the segment, Oliver asked viewers to send electronic messages opposing the proposal to an FCC comments mailbox; around 45,000 did in the days after the episode. Before that, the most public comments on an FCC rule proposal numbered less than 2,000. The following year, the FCC adopted new net neutrality rules prohibiting ISPs from setting up such fast lanes, then defended it successfully in federal court in 2016.

Oliver revisited the issue in 2017 when the FCC’s net neutrality rules again came under assault, this time from a GOP-majority FCC. By the end of the show, people were fired up enough to send 150,000 messages to the agency demanding that network neutrality rules be preserved. (FCC chair Ajit Pai capriciously overturned the rules anyway, despite their overwhelming public support.)

Sunday’s antitrust segment could have similar real-world impact. It’s certainly getting plenty of exposure. It originally ran at 11 p.m. Sunday on HBO. In the past, Last Week Tonight has topped a million viewers per show. Replays were available on HBO Max and HBO Go—and within its first 24 hours, the segment reached more than 2.5 million views on YouTube.

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Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, says the show took tech antitrust “mainstream,” and may sway senators who had been undecided on the issue to cast their vote in favor of the antitrust bills.

“He made the case to millions of Americans,” says Sacha Haworth, director of the Tech Oversight Project, a tech watchdog. “If congresspeople are already hearing from small business owners, sellers on Amazon, advocacy groups like mine, human rights groups, they’re now about to hear from more Americans who just got turned on to this.”

CCIA president Matt Schruers declined to comment on the segment’s potential influence on public opinion or on the political process around the antitrust bills taking place in the Capitol. It’s entirely possible, however, that Oliver’s show blunts the effects of the CCIA ads, which have run on 205 broadcast and cable stations in 17 states and D.C. since late March.

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The CCIA ads claim the bills could “break” Amazon’s 2-day free delivery, as well as free services like Google Search and Maps, and expose smartphones to “costly malware.” The Oliver segment features an ad from another industry group, NetChoice (members include Amazon, Meta, and Google), which centers on a “no-nonsense regular guy” who hops out of his pickup truck to proclaim that the tech antitrust bills will preclude Amazon from offering its popular Prime service, full stop. “And stay away from my phone,” he adds, nodding to the oft-used claim made by antitrust opponents that the Open App Markets Act will open users’ phones to malware.

Such generalities have in the past been effective at spooking lawmakers on potentially controversial bills.

“To be honest I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Fight for the Future’s Greer, “in terms of ad spending specifically and how utterly BS the ads are. They’re focused on scaring Democrats in tight races,” he adds, “hoping that will give cover for Schumer to delay an otherwise inevitable floor vote.”

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Senate majority leader Schumer, who has two children working for big tech companies—one an Amazon lobbyist and another a Meta product manager—isn’t the only one who may be looking for cover. Politico has reported that a cadre of Senate Democrats have voiced opposition to the bills on the grounds that they’ll be forced to take a position on a “potentially controversial” issue just months before the midterms when they’ll need to defend their seats.

How controversial the bills really are is a matter of perception. The bills have enjoyed bipartisan backing, and polls have consistently shown high levels of support among the public.

The CCIA conducted a survey of likely voters before and after the ads ran, Axios reports, and found that they had caused an 8% drop in support for the antitrust bills. Yet. Haworth says her group has been doing the same kind of polling and has seen support for tech antitrust as high as 80%. Other polls have shown similar numbers. Haworth says it’s no surprise that an ad campaign the size of CCIA’s would have its effect, but the ads would have needed to chip away at a lot more support for the bills to shift the balance of public opinion to opposing them.

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For Klobuchar and the Democrats, the clock is ticking. As the November midterms get closer, lawmakers will grow more distracted and more afraid of casting votes that might hurt their chance for reelection. This summer may be the majority’s last hurrah to pass the legislation.

The Oliver segment, and the public discussion it’s likely to cause, could be the final push Klobuchar and the Democrats need to give the tech antitrust legislation a fair hearing on the Senate’s floor.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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