In Rocky IV, all-American underdog Rocky Balboa faces his stiffest challenge yet—Soviet colossus Ivan Drago. Drago’s training consists of high-tech scientific workout machinery and a hefty dose of anabolic steroids. Does Rocky try to beat Drago by simply copying the Russian’s training regimen? Nope. Instead, he goes to the Siberian wilderness to train via trudging through the snow, Good Samaritan sled rescue, and lifting heavy rocks around a remote farm (a truly epic training montage). Rocky’s eventual victory is won not through playing Drago’s game, but playing his own. American tech companies could stand to learn a few things from the Italian Stallion if they want to win their bouts with the Russian and Chinese corporate Dragos. Don’t expect America to retain and grow its technological edge through coddling of monopolies, but through good, old-fashioned, American-as-apple-pie competition.
Enter the debate around two landmark tech competition bills—The American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO)and the Open App Markets Act (OAMA) concerning their potential effects on American global competitiveness. Led by the all-American bipartisan and bicameral tag teams of Reps. David Cicilline and Ken Buck along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Chuck Grassley, these bills would level the competitive playing field and return fair competition to tech platform markets. These bills represent an essential step in the preservation of an industry dominated by a handful of unaccountable companies. Yet their beneficial impacts won’t just be limited domestically. They can be a key component in making America the place for the next generation of technological innovation.
These bills should increase America’s technological edge by introducing the American secret sauce to the equation: competition. American antitrust law is all about competition. Congress should be looking to protect it, cherish it, and promote it at every turn. When companies have to duke it out every day, they’re forced to innovate and be better. Competition also gives technology users greater choice in the digital platform they use and less beholden to one walled garden whose features, practices, and standards they may not prefer. Under competitive threat, companies are marathon runners finding that extra burst of speed to fend off an encroaching rival. Freed from competition, they grow sluggish, lazy, and complacent.
All this is apparently lost on Big Tech as they’ve been disingenuously arguing the competition bills will actually help our adversaries. Scrambling for a way to blunt the clear momentum behind the bills, Big Tech has been trotting out obfuscations and misleading attacks, and the global competitiveness angle hasn’t been spared. Big Tech claims even light-touch, bipartisan laws like AICO and OAMA will cripple American companies while leading to Chinese technological hegemony. This is played out through astroturf groups, dire warnings to congressional staff and multiple letters from several from former defense officials (many now on Big Tech’s payroll). Under scrutiny, these arguments dissolve.
First, the argument that America’s adversaries could take advantage of the bill’s provisions meant to enable competition is easily refuted. The most recent text of AICO specifically forbids any data from going to any entity that is a “clear national security risk” or “controlled by the Government of the People’s Republic of China or the government of a foreign adversary.” Platform conduct that will “protect safety, user privacy, the security of nonpublic data, or the security of the covered platform” is specifically exempted from the bill. Thus, any good-faith platform response to protect users from malicious actors, foreign or otherwise, would be protected.
The Big Tech-dominated status quo if anything has been a boon to America’s adversaries. Google has struggled to comply with sanctions on Russia for its war in Ukraine when it failed to stop sending user data to a Russian-sanctioned online ad company. Apple’s cozy relationship and sweetheart deals with Beijing has meant protest-organizing apps are easily quashed and human rights abuses are legitimized. It should be no secret why Chinese human rights advocates have endorsed the Open App Markets Act and U.S.-based digital rights groups have endorsed the package. Any implication that Big Tech is bravely representing American values and interests abroad, especially on the level warranting special economic treatment, is meritless. If anything, adversarial authoritarian regimes have had an easier time controlling today’s few large players than they would many competitive ones.
AICO and OAMA will be great for innovation because of who they will empower: disruptive competitors with the real incentives to offer status quo-shattering innovations. Big Tech naturally responds with their big R&D budgets, which they claim can only be justified if they continue raking in unimpeded monopoly profits. However, innovation is all about quality, not quantity. Thus, it’s useful to separate the sheer volume of R&D spending from actual innovation that benefits consumers. Government policy should prioritize market-disrupting innovation that can fundamentally change how consumers interact with technology. Big Tech titans have no incentive to disrupt a market in which they have unchallenged dominance. These companies are like any other—they are driven by their bottom line. Don’t expect them to act out of patriotic fervor or friendly altruism. If we let them, they’ll opt for resting on their monopoly laurels each and every time.
America’s greatest historical success stories are inexorably tied with competition. Pre-World War II the innovation center of the world was not America, but Germany. But U.S. scientific minds, driven by the throes of World War II, answered the bell and made America’s innovation engine what it is today. We can get back to that creative golden age, but we need affirmative steps to break the Big Tech market shackles before we can do it.
History has taught us time and time again that competition, not monopoly coddling, is how America wins the fight for the next big thing. As legal scholar Tim Wu so aptly pointed out in a recent Open Markets Institute keynote, there are two competing schools of thought to maximize innovation. One is a “trust the giants” approach of trusting in monopolies to have the resources to invest while the other is a “trust the people” approach of fostering competition to incentivize innovation. It’s the latter approach—taking advantage of the American spirit of inventiveness—that has the historical track record behind it.
Wu uses the 1960s and 70s as a persuasive case study for his point. Then, the regulatory background was eerily similar to today. America was dominated by seemingly benevolent tech titans (AT&T and IBM) amid fears of an encroaching global technical rival (Japan). Despite this, the U.S. launched bold antitrust cases and agency action to rein in AT&T and IBM. The result? Decades of spectacular economic growth, a new booming software industry, and the genesis of companies like Microsoft and Apple. Would-be rival Japan took the opposite approach and in feeble attempts to “protect” national champion monopolies ended up missing out on the next wave of technological innovation—software. Today’s policymakers face the same decision today and should learn from this historical success story.
Why are there so many famous scientific rivalries? Tesla and Edison, Salk and Sabin, Newton and Hooke. You can thank those spats for electricity, the polio vaccine, and gravity—knowledge all realized through the fuel of rivalrous competition. Those who would seek to remove the competitive threat from Big Tech might be doing a short term favor for their bottom lines, but are doing a disservice to society.
The storybook ending of Rocky IV has the Russian crowd turning on Ivan Drago and the Soviet oligarchs controlling him. Emboldened by the Moscow crowd chants of “Rocky! Rocky!” and clad in the iconic American flag shorts of the slain Apollo Creed, the titular hero shrugs off volley after volley before knocking out Drago with a vicious counterattack. America: It’s time for us to emulate Rocky, get back in the ring, and start punching back. We’ve seen the consequences of unfettered Big Tech dominance—moral compromise and a blunted American competitive edge. Now is the time to dust ourselves off and come at Big Tech with a legislative salvo designed to make them compete on fair terms once again. We have determined, bipartisan leadership behind AICO and OAMA and an ever-growing coalition of supporters, resulting in clear momentum for an imminent congressional floor vote. When you’ve got all that, no training montage required.