Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
Los Angeles Times on the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against Google:
The internet has been a powerful source of innovation and opportunity in the half-century since the first electronic message was sent between experimental nodes at UCLA and Stanford. And in some industries, it remains a great equalizer — giving upstart creators and service providers the sort of access that used to be the exclusive province of big corporations.
That’s why policymakers in the United States have been loath to intervene online, worried that any rules they set would be counterproductive or quickly rendered obsolete by the rapid pace of change. “Don’t regulate the internet” became a frequent rallying cry, and for the most part, lawmakers and governmental agencies handled the emerging online powerhouses with kid gloves.
The gloves have now officially come off. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a much-anticipated lawsuit Tuesday accusing Google of abusing its dominant position in online search and advertising to cement its market power. The lawsuit, which was joined by 11 state attorneys general, is likely to be just the first in a salvo of antitrust cases, legislative proposals, rule-makings and other governmental initiatives to rein in Big Tech companies.
We won’t prejudge the Justice Department’s allegations that Google unfairly blocked competitors and raised the cost of online advertising to the detriment of consumers across the country. But we can’t help but notice the similarities between the case against Google and the Justice Department’s successful antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the late 1990s, when the software giant used its deals with computer manufacturers for the Windows operating system to impede competition in the emerging areas of web browsers and digital media players.
According to the Justice Department’s complaint, Google has used exclusive contracts with manufacturers and mobile phone services to make sure Google would be the default search service on browsers and mobile devices, and to guarantee that its apps would be placed prominently on products’ screens. This conduct led it to control more than 90% of the searches, the complaint alleges, while also buttressing its dominant position in online advertising.
Google defended its actions and argued that consumers are free to choose other services for their searches.
Failing a negotiated settlement, the courts will ultimately decide whether Google’s behavior crossed the legal line. But with California and three dozen other states still investigating Google, there will almost certainly be more cases filed, just as there are more concerns about the company than the Justice Department addressed, including whether Google competes unfairly by favoring its own products (such as YouTube and Google Maps) in its search results, and whether Google inappropriately uses its advertising network to boost its own products by collecting data from consumers on competitors’ sites.
The lesson of the Microsoft case that seems apt here is not that it’s illegal to be big and successful. It is that once a company reaches that pinnacle, the aggressive tactics it used to grow and succeed can no longer be used to maintain its dominance. Monopolies aren’t necessarily illegal — efforts to preserve them are.
That’s why antitrust authorities at the state and federal level are also scrutinizing Facebook, which has a track record of trying to gobble up or crush companies that could compete with its social network, and Amazon, which has been accused of competing unfairly with the many small and midsize businesses that sell products and services through its platform. Apple has come under the microscope too even though its products aren’t the top sellers in any category; its critics say the company is extracting unfairly high fees from the companies that want to make and sell apps for Apple’s iPhones and iPads.
And then there is the flak that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (which, like Google, is owned by Alphabet) have taken for the way they limit what users can say or post on their platforms. No one would care about these companies’ policies if their platforms hadn’t grown to such an epic global scale. But they are such powerful amplifiers of speech that some Republicans want to regulate them to ensure that they don’t discriminate against content from conservatives, offering potentially damaging fixes to a dubious problem; and some Democrats want to regulate them to ensure that they aren’t filled with misinformation, a real dilemma that defies easy solutions.
Meanwhile, California is leading the push by states to give consumers more control over the personal data that have become the internet’s unofficial currency. The more that consumers learn about how their data are being used online, the more demand there will be for stronger privacy protections.
For Big Tech, it’s a reckoning that’s been a long time coming. The internet is still capable of supporting vigorous competition and a free-flowing exchange of ideas, and rapidly changing technology still has the potential to disrupt markets and topple once-dominant corporations. But as much as lawmakers and regulators need to keep those realities in mind, they also need to make sure dominant companies don’t leverage their power to choke off competition and leave consumers with too few good alternatives and too little innovation.
The Wall Street Journal on the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of Pennsylvania’s request to extend its mail-in ballot deadline:
How’s this for anticlimactic? The Supreme Court had an appeal from Pennsylvania Republicans for three weeks. State law unambiguously says that mail-in votes are due at 8 p.m. on Election Day. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court pushed that deadline back to Nov. 6, even if the ballot lacks any legible postmark.
The GOP and state legislative leaders asked the Justices for a stay on Sept. 28. The length of time the High Court pondered it led observers to wonder if something decisive might be in the offing. Nope. On Monday a terse statement from the Court said the request “is denied.” Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh would have granted the stay. With a 4-4 split, the state judiciary’s extension was left in place.
The missing conservative is Chief Justice John Roberts. With no full opinion, one can only speculate as to his thinking. Maybe he was reluctant to halt a state court’s ruling on a question of state law. But elections for President and Congress also involve federal interests, and Pennsylvania law couldn’t be clearer in specifying that mail-in votes must arrive “no later than eight o’clock P.M. on the day of the primary or election.”
Perhaps the Chief, concerned by Democratic attacks on the Court’s “legitimacy,” is betting this problem will fizzle out. He had better hope so. If the ballot counting on Nov. 3 is close, the parties could soon be back knocking at the Chief Justice’s chambers. Then the stakes would be far higher, since a decision by the Justices could tip the outcome as millions of Americans watch. Justice Amy Coney Barrett will be settling into her new chair, knock on wood, precluding a 4-4 split.
If it comes to that, it’ll be hard to argue that October wasn’t a much better time to tell Pennsylvania to follow its own election code.
The Washington Post on election workers stepping up to meet increased demand:
With two weeks until Election Day, election officials are scrambling to ensure a safe and orderly voting process. Even with an unprecedented number of ballots being cast absentee, millions will vote in person, and poll workers are critical to that running smoothly.
Even before the pandemic, election officials often struggled to attract enough poll workers. Making in-person voting safe and efficient during a pandemic will require creativity and extra precautions. With seniors at higher risk for serious complications from the novel coronavirus and transmission rates growing at alarming rates around the country, election officials and advocates have devoted serious resources over the past several months toward replenishing their ranks of poll workers.
In a rare bit of election-related good news, these efforts appear to have paid off in many jurisdictions. Earlier this year, Wisconsin struggled mightily to recruit enough poll workers. Even with assistance from the National Guard, Milwaukee was forced to cut the number of polling stations from 180 to five. Since then, officials in the state have seen a wave of new applicants. Milwaukee is on track to have 173 polling places open. In Madison, so many people stepped forward that officials had to cut off applications. With the oversupply, they can give poll workers shorter shifts and have teams on hand for rapid response if things go wrong. While other issues could plague the swing state on Election Day, it’s encouraging that statewide, Wisconsin is short only about 180 poll workers.
The view isn’t rosy everywhere — plenty of jurisdictions are still looking to recruit more poll workers. And the stakes are high — a shortage of poll workers could force officials to close polling stations or lead to hours-long lines that effectively disenfranchise would-be voters who cannot afford to wait. But jurisdictions around the country appear to be in far better shape than many feared.
Younger Americans have been particularly responsive to the call to relieve traditionally older poll workers, thanks in part to the Power the Polls campaign, a collaboration of nonprofits and businesses whose dedicated efforts have been amplified by a number of celebrities. Hopefully, this influx will mean a more sustainable workforce for decades to come.
Those who are able should still consider applying to work the polls if their local board of election is still hiring. A surplus is preferable since not everyone who applies will complete their training, and officials expect even some of those who are trained to drop out before Election Day.
There’s plenty that officials should still do to reduce the odds of a chaotic election — notably, enacting measures to allow ballots to be processed before Election Day. But the fact that thousands of Americans have stepped forward as new poll workers is a good reminder of how impactful the cumulative efforts of ordinary people can be during this election. Other ways to help: Vote early if you can, and be patient for results, which may not arrive on election night.
The Post and Courier on the consequences of a transatlantic tariff war:
The United States and the European Union have been drifting apart for two decades, and issues that used to be treated as friendly family quarrels, like different trade policies or different commitments to a common defense, have turned into major disagreements.
But in a world defined by strong challenges to the international rules on which both rely, it is clear that the United States and the EU need to stand together wherever possible.
Unfortunately, a recent pair of rulings by the World Trade Organization threatens to ignite a new tariff war between the two. That would be bad for both and for the rest of the free world that depends on the rules, which are being threatened by China, Russia and Iran.
Last year, the WTO found that the EU had given illegal production subsidies to Airbus worth $7.5 billion to enable it to compete with Boeing, and authorized the United States to collect a like amount in retaliatory tariffs on European goods. The U.S. has begun imposing new tariffs on goods such as Scotch whiskey, but has not fully exploited the ruling in its favor.
On the other hand, the WTO also recently found that Washington state had given $4 billion in illegal tax breaks to Boeing and authorized the EU to impose a similar amount of tariffs on the United States.
These are hardly crippling penalties in a two-way trade relationship that reached $1.3 trillion in 2018, and one could hope that both sides would find an amicable way to settle the remaining issues and waive the penalties, especially because they clearly need to be pulling together against the new threats to world order.
That does not seem to be the case. The United States Trade Representative’s office says the U.S. won the subsidy battle because its award was larger, and Europe should impose no new tariffs at all. The EU’s new trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, replied that the U.S. had to drop its punitive tariffs before Europe would drop its new authority for higher tariffs.
This may be the normal Kabuki posturing that often precedes serious negotiations. But it also is a possible prelude to a complete breakdown in negotiations. The EU has developed a history of unyielding rigidity in its foreign relations that reflects the difficulty it has in getting unanimous consent from its 27 members.
It is worth noting that Boeing this year agreed to give up the $100-million-a-year tax break it was getting from Washington state, and the law granting that break was repealed. But even though Airbus has said it is giving up production subsidies, the EU has not renounced or rescinded its legal authority to provide them. So there is a continuing, if latent, unresolved issue.
What raises this from the level of a family spat to a serious threat to better U.S.-EU relations is the prospect of a new tariff war that will make it harder for both sides to find common ground where it matters most. It’s time to move on from the political intricacies built into trade retaliation measures. Settle this matter quickly.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune on how the coronavirus pandemic is leading to a global democratic ‘crisis’:
The global coronavirus pandemic “has fueled a crisis for democracy across the world,” according to a bracing report, “Democracy under Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom,” from the nonpartisan watchdog Freedom House.
Tragically, freedom has been contracting, not expanding, for 14 consecutive years, and the pandemic has resulted in declines in democracy and human rights in 80 nations as governments have responded by “engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very system of accountability needed to protect public health.”
The crackdowns are acute in what Freedom House deems “struggling democracies and highly repressive states — in other words, settings that already had weak safeguards against abuses of power are suffering the most.”
Examples abound, across continents, from Sri Lanka to Cambodia to Belarus and beyond. In Egypt — a U.S. ally — the report reflects that “the military regime has used COVID-19 as an opportunity to further repress political activists, rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and doctors, arresting dozens, denying them basic assistance in places of detention, and placing several on terrorist watch lists.”
The repression takes many forms, some simultaneously, including abuses of power, in which “officials and security services perpetrated violence against civilians, detained people without justification, and overstepped their legal authority.” In fact, some governments used the crisis to grant themselves emergency powers, and then used them to “interfere in the justice system, impose unprecedented restrictions on political opponents, and undermine crucial legislative functions.”
What’s more, mis- and disinformation on the pandemic disseminated by some regimes may only add to the misery — and the mortality. And those who do speak out or report on the pernicious restrictions are often stifled, “making accountability difficult and hampering the dissemination of vital information.”
Governments and citizens, Freedom House asserts, “must recognize that press freedoms and freedom of expression are essential tools for exposing misconduct and assessing the effectiveness of the pandemic response. Public health depends on the protection of these core democratic values.”
And yet the countries that are supposed to project and protect these core democratic values don’t always do so at home, let alone abroad. There have been significant setbacks in media freedoms here in the U.S., for instance, as tracked by Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
“Established democracies could do a much better job in speaking out against some of the abuses that are occurring around the world under the pretext of the pandemic,” Amy Slipowitz, Freedom House’s research manager, told an editorial writer. This includes internet dissent, which is the subject of a separate, but equally concerning Freedom House report, “The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow,” issued on Wednesday.
Among that report’s findings: “State and nonstate actors in many countries are now exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to shape online narratives, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control.”
The timing couldn’t be worse: “The COVID-19 pandemic has really accelerated society’s reliance on digital technologies, but this comes at a time when it is less free,” Slipowitz, the report’s co-author, said.
The pandemic crackdown across so many countries should put America’s domestic debate over mask mandates and other mitigation efforts into context. It’s not tyranny, but responsibility, that’s leading governments to try to slow the spread of a virus that’s costing lives and livelihoods. Indeed, said Slipowitz, “I would put that into perspective and highlight the different restrictions that are happening around the world now and how they are undermining people’s political rights and civil liberties in really severe ways.”
Recognizing and respecting this difference would go a long way toward a more productive, constructive debate here at home.
The Guardian on pro-democracy protests in Thailand:
Thailand is often described as coup-prone, given the numerous military takeovers since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. It would be as accurate to call it democracy-hungry. Thais have periodically fought to determine their own future, despite the risks.
Early on Oct. 15, the government declared a “severe” state of emergency in Bangkok, in response to months of protests culminating in a mass rally on Oct. 14. It banned gatherings of more than four people and the publication of information that could “create fear” or “affect national security”. Thousands immediately surged into the streets, angered by the arrest of protest leaders. The fear of a harsher crackdown is well-founded given the brutal repression of previous movements, including the 1976 massacre at Thammasat University. The UK and others must press the regime to respect the rights of protesters.
Prayuth Chan-ocha’s administration, a military junta that laundered itself into an elected government via a rigged system, is both incompetent and authoritarian. Even dissidents who have fled the country have been harassed, disappeared or killed. Unhappiness has been fuelled by Covid-19’s destruction of the tourism sector, on which the country is heavily dependent. Protestors demand the prime minister’s resignation and the redrafting of the constitution. But they have also broken new ground by demanding reform of what was previously taboo, thanks to heavy penalties for discussing it: Thailand’s royalty. Anon Nampa, the lawyer who helped kick the movement off and is now detained, warned: “If we don’t fix the monarchy, we can’t fix anything else.”
While his father, who died in 2016, was seen touring provincial development projects, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is better known for his personal life, including the ruthless treatment of ex-wives. He resides largely in Bavaria with a female entourage; Germany’s foreign minister says it has “made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil”.
But the king has also centralised both wealth and power, taking direct command of troops, insisting on constitutional changes and taking personal ownership of the Crown Property Bureau’s holdings – estimated at $40bn. While millions are unemployed, $1bn of this year’s government budget will go to the monarchy. Cue previously unthinkable scenes, with protestors giving a three-fingered salute to the royal motorcade in reference to the Hunger Games and to liberty, equality and fraternity.
Yet the institution’s revered status had already begun eroding. While the last king was seen as a pillar of stability, he consistently sided with the forces of conservatism. Anti-monarchism began to emerge among the largely poor and rural “red shirts” who supported the ousted and controversial prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Strikingly, however, there now seems to be a nascent realignment between this movement and another with which it has often clashed: the urban, largely middle class pro-democracy movement often rooted in universities and NGOs, and which most recently swung behind Future Forward, a now-dissolved pro-democracy party.
Thailand’s establishment has so far proved incapable of grasping that the age of deference is over. It is not surprising that the elites resist change in a country with possibly the highest wealth inequality in the world, where the richest 1% control almost 67% of assets. But nor is it feasible that the rest will be content with their meagre lot. Until a better political and economic settlement is reached, the strains will continue to grow. The monarchy’s position is now one of them.