MGM and Amazon logos
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Big Tech’s acquisition door is wide open — and will be for a long time

Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, we look at what Amazon’s MGM acquisition means for the state of antitrust enforcement and at the Senate’s hearing on crypto, which showed an emerging partisan divide. Also, to commemorate the launch of Protocol Climate, we dig into data that shows how people expect tech to address the issue.

Big Tech’s acquisition door is wide open

Three in four Americans feel that Big Tech is too big. Acquisitions play a significant role in this state of affairs. Yet with all the noise about antitrust, Amazon went forward with its second-biggest acquisition ever on Thursday, closing a $6.5 billion deal to buy MGM. The FTC and Congress could only sit back and watch (and draft bills doomed to fail — more on that in a bit).

My first thought upon hearing the news: Does this mean “Licorice Pizza” is coming to Prime? I joke, but only partly.

This would be an unpopular antitrust battle for the FTC to wage. Why? Because for the estimated 60% of the U.S. adult population that subscribes to Prime, blocking the deal would amount to taking away “free” content. MGM holds around 4,000 movies and 17,000 TV episodes, which in practical terms means you can hold off on subscribing to Peacock for at least another year. More content also means less time alone with one’s thoughts, which I’m told is a high priority these days.

The FTC has more practical reasons to not target the deal. The agency could technically still take action, though it would be a steep uphill battle.

  • The FTC had until mid-March to certify the deal or file a legal challenge. It wasn’t able to do either. That, combined with the EU signing off on it because “MGM’s content cannot be considered as must-have,” gave Amazon enough confidence to proceed with the acquisition this week.
  • The FTC told media outlets that, even though it won’t comment on particular matters, “the Commission does not approve transactions and may challenge a deal at any time if it determines that it violates the law.” The FTC has also sent letters warning companies to proceed with unvetted mergers at their own risk.
  • But with the commission split 2–2 — and Biden’s nomination of Alvaro Bedoya stuck in the Senate — the FTC will have a hard time proceeding with a review of the acquisition, which requires a majority vote. Unnamed sources told POLITICO that the FTC won’t bring a lawsuit with a split commission.
  • And then there’s the public perception issue. Should federal agencies set agendas based on popular opinion? Probably not! But public opinion still plays a big role in political calculus. And there are plenty of other Big Tech cases regulators can focus on: Google’s planned $5.4 billion acquisition of the cybersecurity company Mandiant comes to mind, though it still might not pass the “major competitor” test.

The door for Big Tech acquisitions will be wide open until the underlying laws change. That could be far in the future, as the most recent effort to rewrite acquisition rules seems destined to fail.

  • On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Mondaire Jones released the Prohibiting Anticompetitive Mergers Act of 2022, which would ban mergers valued at more than $5 billion. It would be a blunt legislative instrument, but that might be exactly what the antitrust camp needs to make any progress on this front.
  • It’s just the latest piece of progressive antitrust legislation to go nowhere. “This bill is about as likely to pass as the ‘Space Jam’ remake is to win Best Picture,” Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich told Protocol. “Without any bipartisan support or even support from relevant committee chairs, it doesn’t have a future.”

So where will change come from, and when will it arrive? Congress is expected to swing dramatically toward the right after the midterms. That could actually invigorate antitrust efforts, though from the GOP’s preferred angle of platform access rather than economic consolidation. When it comes to Amazon Prime, for instance, that might mean putting clearer guidelines in place for accepting or rejecting unsolicited feature-length films (right-wingers have long complained about Amazon removing documentaries). It’s not exactly revolutionary but, then again, neither is the ongoing Congressional stalemate.

— Hirsh Chitkara (email | twitter)

In Washington

The FTC and Justice Department antitrust division will hold a joint session to hear from workers, small businesses and investors about the effects of M&A in the tech sector. The forum will be in May, and will also come after an April session on deals in the media space. The FTC’s case against Meta, of course, focuses on a pattern of allegedly anticompetitive acquisitions by the company.

Crypto executives used the war in Ukraine to help make their case in the U.S. Senate Banking Committee yesterday. One executive said crypto helped funnel money to Ukraine, and that the hardest part about doing so was navigating the government bureaucracy. Warren used the session to advocate for her bill, the Digital Asset Sanctions Compliance Enhancement Act of 2022, which would give the president the ability to “sanction foreign crypto firms that are doing business with sanctioned Russian entities.”

Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer wants the SEC to back off crypto regulation. Emmer sent a letter to SEC Chairman Gary Gensler saying crypto and blockchain firms complained to his office about “overburdensome” information reporting requests from the SEC that “are stifling innovation.”

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger and Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra will testify at a Senate hearing on U.S. competitiveness in chips next Wednesday.

On Protocol

The FTC wants companies to destroy algorithms developed with ill-gotten data, but that could get messy quickly. The FTC recently demanded WW, formerly Weight Watchers, destroy its algorithmic systems and delete data gathered deceptively. But as Protocol’s Kate Kaye points out, AI and machine-learning systems can draw from multiple intersecting models and data sets, making it almost impossible to take “bad” data out without destroying everything else.

You can now take a loan at the pump to buy gas. Klarna and Zip are payment options at Texaco and Chevron gas stations. The "buy now, pay later" companies let customers split their soaring gas payments into four payments spread across six weeks. High gas prices continue to drive discontent with the U.S. government, despite the Biden administration’s best efforts to win voters over via TikTok influencer campaigns.

When an Uber driver crashes due to reckless behavior, who should pay for resultant medical damage? Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky dives into the story of a man who lost his health, job and home in the aftermath of a crash. Uber insists it isn’t a transportation company, but one that “provides digital lead generation services.”

Still trying to figure out SWIFT? Protocol published an explainer on what it is and why it’s still such an important component of the Russia sanctions.

A MESSAGE FROM INTEL

In a few years, we may be largely living “on the edge.” As the amount of data grows exponentially, there is a greater need for edge computing solutions to aid in real-time decision-making.

Learn more

Around the world

China’s tech CEOs tell their government what they want during the Two Sessions. This time around, Tencent’s founder warned against Web3 and NFTs, Baidu’s CEO suggested expediting digitization of China’s transportation system, Xiaomi’s CEO asked for an expanded EV charging system and Sequoia China’s founding partner called for research into the commercial application of microorganisms in agriculture.

Buyk, a Russian grocery delivery company with operations in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy due to sanctions. The company raised $46 million in funding, per Crunchbase. Protocol has a running list of the tech-related fallout from the war in Ukraine.

In the media, culture and metaverse

The U.K. Parliament unveiled a draft of an expansive online safety bill that could send tech executives to prison. Executives who knowingly provide false information under the requirements of the bill would face up to two years of jail time. The bill overall attempts to protect children online by limiting access to certain content and holding tech companies accountable for more stringent reporting on usage. The bill must still go through a drafting process in Parliament, which means it could change substantially before becoming law.

Twitter is catching renewed heat for its decision to suppress the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story in the lead-up to the 2020 election. On Thursday, The New York Times released a report on Biden based in part on emails “from a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop.” At a Congressional hearing last year, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the company made a “total mistake” by blocking users from sharing the post and attributed the error to procedure.

A MESSAGE FROM INTEL

As a form of distributed computing, edge computing enables processing to happen where data is being generated. The convergence of 5G networks with edge computing means data is not only traveling faster, but can be quickly translated via media, inferencing and analytics into insights and action, enabling new, ultra-low latency applications to come to life.

Learn more

Big Green

$23.2 billion: That’s how much money corporate venture capital invested in the climate tech business last year, according to PitchBook data acquired by The Wall Street Journal. This figure more than doubled the spend of $10.1 billion in 2020, and far exceeded the previous high of $12.9 billion from 2018.

73%: The percent of U.S. adults who believe tech companies have a high obligation to address the climate crisis, according to an exclusive survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Protocol. An even higher percentage of tech workers, 94%, said the same thing.

What goes down must come up?

China’s tech stocks have mounted an incredible comeback, but at one point the entirety of the HS Tech Index (which includes China’s major tech giants) was worth less than Amazon. Columbia historian Adam Tooze wrote an excellent analysis piece for his Substack.

Thanks for reading — see you Monday!

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