John Oliver on big tech: ‘Ending a monopoly is almost always a good thing’

The Last Week Tonight host examined Google, Amazon and Apple and efforts to address ‘anti-competitive conduct’

John Oliver has called out “anti-competitive conduct” of big tech, urging bipartisan support of bills that would help curb such behaviour.

On Last Week Tonight, the host said that “our experiences on the internet are now dominated by a small handful of companies who are getting pretty used to throwing their weight around”.

He said that each of the big tech behemoths – Apple, Amazon and Google – act as “gatekeeper over a key channel of distribution” and end up “suppressing their competition so completely that we’d never actually know if someone else could do it better”.

There are two bills with bipartisan support that could curtail some of the excesses but Oliver said they need to pass in the next month or so.

He then went back to tell the story of AT&T, the company that used to be in charge of both local and long-distance services as well as many related products. “Fuck AT&T now and forever,” Oliver said of the corporation that owned HBO until recently.

“Ending a monopoly is almost always a good thing,” he said, explaining how government intervention allowed other companies to enter the industry way back when, which led to innovation like the answering machine and modem.

He then spoke about the contemporary practice of self-preferencing, which is when companies unfairly favour their own products on their own platforms.

On Apple’s app store, 95% of searches related to their own specialist apps preferenced them, while the company also has a “stranglehold on developers who want to get their apps on their phones”.

They are required to use Apple’s payment processing tool, which takes money from every payment through an app. Google charges similarly high commissions to developers.

The search company is still responsible for 90% of the world’s internet searches with the word Googling being used often over searching. “No one has ever said I’m going to Bing it,” he joked.

But 41% of a first page of results goes to the company’s own properties and direct answers. It has meant that other companies are de-prioritised and often de-platformed. “Google’s algorithm shouldn’t determine whether someone’s business is real,” he argued.

Amazon is responsible for 65-70% of online marketplace sales in the US, which means it’s “close to the only game in town” and “basically is the marketplace”. But the buy box is controlled by them and even if there are other sellers at a lower price underneath, 80% of Amazon sales go through that first box – and that’s even more for mobile.

Studies have shown that Amazon chose itself for the buy box for 40% of products and even when it went somewhere else, nine out of 10 options still used Amazon’s shipping service. The company is also responsible for in-house products and clear knockoffs, and access to private seller data has shown them the popularity of products.

The two bills before Congress are called the Open App Markets Act and the American Choice and Innovation Online Act. They “would address some of the problems” being mentioned and so “tech companies are fighting these bills hard”.

Oliver added: “These bills are narrow, arguably too narrow, but that is why they have broad bipartisan support.”

They have the support of both Senators Bernie Sanders and Josh Hawley, which is “the only thing they have in common” but 17 members of Congress have children who work or have worked for big tech, including two of Chuck Schumer’s daughters. Schumer is the person who needs to call these bills to a vote and if they are not addressed before the summer break, they will “probably be dead by the fall”.

“The problem with letting a few companies control whole sectors of the economy is that it limits what is possible for startups,” he said. He said he thought these bills would stop smaller companies being “surcharged to death, buried in search results or ripped off completely”.

Guardian staff

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