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The anti-monopoly man
A new profile of antitrust advocate Matt Stoller. Plus: inside TikTok’s attempt to rewrite its story, and a strange D.C. evening talking AI.
Hello from rainy Washington D.C., where we’ve lately been playing the fun game of ‘Is it sweater weather? Or will I be too hot in pants?’
First up, if you’re asking yourself a different question — Why am I getting this? — well, at some point, you subscribed to a newsletter put out by me, Nancy Scola, that’s slowly morphing into occasional updates on my work. I’d love for you to stay signed up, but if you’d rather not (and it’s important to make your inbox work for you) then you can go here to unsubscribe.
On to those updates. To start, I’ve got a new piece out on Matt Stoller, an antitrust advocate who has achieved remarkable influence in Washington, with his work closely followed inside the Capitol Hill offices, federal agencies, and the Biden White House that are all grappling with where the anti-monopoly revivalism afoot in D.C. at the moment goes from here.
I’ve known Stoller for some time, going back to his early days in Washington, including as he helped popularize and make politically salient the concept of ‘net neutrality.’ He’s since done largely the same for a new approach to thinking about antitrust and monopolies. That turn of events is particularly striking to me because he sort of Babe-Ruth-pointed-to-the-stands on that back when the notion of doing so was pretty far-fetched, as I recount in a new profile of Stoller for Politico Magazine, available here.
The framing of the piece has to do with Stoller’s attempt to build bipartisan momentum around the idea that government should use its powers — both the ones it has now and the ones, the thinking goes, that legislators should give it — to reduce corporate concentration in the United States, from Facebook to the pharmaceutical industry. To get there, Stoller is calling on one of his go-to moves: gathering would-be policymakers and policy-influencers who don’t yet know each other in a room, often over beers and the like, to learn about each others’ ways of thinking and build relationships that might prove meaningful in the future. It’s worked in the past; as I note in the profile, some of the people know pulling the levers on antitrust in Washington first really got to know each other in pizza-and-beer sessions Stoller organized a decade ago. Of late, he’s been convening people both from his left-of-center circles and from places on the political right like the Federal Society, to find the spots in the universe of economic populism where they might overlap.
But part of that project is, too, lifting up as positive examples conservatives who Stoller thinks are either (a) right thinking on antitrust and corporate concentration already or (b) showing signs they could get here with a little time and cultivation. The case study here is Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican senator who, if you know of him at all, probably know him from a photograph of him holding up a seeming fist-of-solidarity to January 6th crowds shortly before they broke into the Capitol Building, riled up by claims of supposed voting irregularities that Hawley had said made him – the first senator to say they would do so — object to the certification of Joe Biden as president-elect.
Stoller’s lifting up of Hawley’s antitrust work — and how, exactly, he does it, which often seems to celebrate Hawley’s anti-elite impulses seen by many as problematically revanchist and nationalistic — has earned him a lot of critics. It also, I think, makes him a fascinating subject for a profile. I hope you might give it a read.
(By the way, I’m teed up to watch this new PBS documentary on the history of Monopoly, the game and social critique. Here’s the trailer.)
Another intriguing debate taking place in Washington (as well as across the country) right now has to do with TikTok. As you likely well know, there’s a deep-seated belief among some in Washington that the app constitutes an unacceptable security threat, really on two grounds. First, that the Chinese government could use it to gather heaps of personal data on the more than hundred million Americans that use it. And second, that the Chinese government could lean on the app to tweak its algorithm to undermine American democracy — whether that’s by directly influencing American elections or by so capturing the attention of the country’s youth that they, and I’m only kinda kidding here, forget to participate as full citizens in the direction the United States goes next.
As a company, TikTok, as you might imagine, rejects that understanding of what it is and what it’s up to. That’s a struggle, in part because the company has a really difficult to story to tell as it aims to convince the public, lawmakers, national security officials, regulators, and more that just because its parent company is Beijing-based, it’s not unduly influenced, or influenceable, by the Chinese Communist Party. I dug into that debate, and how TikTok is going about arguing its side of it, for The Information.
(The Information operates under a pretty compelling business model that counts on drawing robust support from the community it serves — in their case, largely people who work in and around technology, and who have a vested interest in where the field goes next. If that’s you, you should consider subscribing! If you just have an interest in reading this particular story, let me know.)
A few last bits and bobs: back in 2017, I headed over to eastern Kentucky, to the town of Paintsville, to observe up close the attempt by first-term California congressman Ro Khanna to pitch locals there on the idea that their fortunes could be tied to those of Silicon Valley, which he helps represent in Congress. I fairly recently caught up with Khanna to ask, among other things, if he stills feels comfortable promoting the idea of U.S. tech industry as something of a savior in light of its recent troubles. The resulting Q&A, for Politico Magazine, is here.
And, again for The Information, I attended a weeknight briefing at the National Press Club here in D.C. where some of the team behind the film “The Social Dilemma” argued to the assembled crowd that emerging language-based artificial intelligence tools represent something of an existential threat. It was quite a D.C. evening — the Surgeon General sat right in front of me, in full uniform, cap in hand; former Speaker Dick Gephardt gave the opening remarks — and, I think gives a useful preview of the debate over modern AI we’re likely to hear a lot more about in the coming months and years.
Thanks, as always, for reading. It means a lot. And don’t hesitate to get in touch.