Antitrust Cops Put Handcuffs for CEOs on the Table
The antitrust debate is heating up. Are handcuffs for CEOs coming? Meanwhile, both the Democratic and Republican Senate Caucuses are being briefed on competition law.
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While the war in Ukraine is rightfully dominating the news, antitrust enforcers have just made several major announcements that could reshape our economy, including one related to handcuffs for corporate executives.
So today I’m writing about how the antitrust debate is getting hotter…
Laws Are Not Suggestions
Right now, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are being sued for antitrust violations, with substantial amounts of evidence put forward by regulators, Congress, and policymakers that these firms harm small business and consumers. Dominant firms today take laws as mere suggestions; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg might have engaged in insider trading and fraud, and Google’s Sundar Pichai seems to have facilitated price-fixing over ad markets. And yet, these men, and their firms are unchastened.
Why? The answer is that these executives do not personally fear any consequences. At worst, their firms will have to budget a bit more for the legal department, and a case could come down in two to three years they might have to think through.
And this makes sense. Antitrust cases take a long time. More to the point, monopolization is often understood to be a civil infraction, something executives must watch out for or their firm will sanctioned in some way. But I’ve been pointing out that, if you read the statute, violating Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act is a crime, with the possibility of jail time for executives. The only reason it’s not treated as a crime is because the government made a policy choice in the 1970s to no longer bring criminal cases. The Antitrust Division essentially handed out Get Out of Jail Free cards to corporate America.
That’s why no one in the Silicon Valley C-Suite is afraid. But that also looks set to change.
Under the leadership of new Antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter, the Department of Justice is beginning to get much more aggressive. Here’s what Richard Powers, the head of antitrust criminal enforcement, just told the American Bar Association’s conference on white collar crime.
That’s a big deal.