Free market champions or a cosy cartel?
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It had been a long night, but Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt could look back at his work in the Democratic Party’s election night ‘boiler room’ with quiet satisfaction. Schmidt’s corner was the dubbed the “cave”, where a crack team of 30 hand-picked analysts had pored over their laptops. Now they could relax. After a nerve-racking autumn in which President Obama’s Republican rival Mitt Romney was level with, or ahead of the incumbent, Obama had won by a larger majority than anyone expected: five million votes. Schmidt was happy to take the plaudits. Bloomberg News credited the Google chairman’s team for the “surprising” margin. What happened next was remarkable. Within weeks, the second Obama administration wrapped up multiple competition probes into Google, promising not to revisit the company for five years in exchange for voluntary changes giving rivals fair access to crucial patents and lifting restrictions on advertisers. It would appoint Google executives and senior counsels to several top administrative positions overseeing the tech sector, including competition policy and intellectual property. Sensing the political weather, Microsoft, Google’s most tenacious public foe, made peace. Over the next few years, the large tech platforms grew and grew. And with the market becalmed, investors turned away from funding competitors that could challenge them, towards ideas based on regulatory loopholes, like Uber and WeWork, or to wildly speculative new fads, such as the blockchain. Scott Cleland, a former Clinton administration official and veteran Google watcher, says: “It’s a $4 trillion question – how did Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple go from a $1 trillion valuation to a $5 trillion valuation today?” For Cleland the answer is simple: “They beat the antitrust rap”.

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