Are Amazon, Facebook, and Google Killing Consumer Choice?

In a recent EconTalk podcast, Matt Stoller makes the argument that Amazon, Facebook, and Google have gotten too large. In fact, he argues that their size enables them to undermine the democratic institutions that the United States was founded upon (Stoller’s argument can be found in written form here). I think that claim is quite clearly an overstatement, but I want to focus on a somewhat smaller claim made in the podcast. During their discussion, Stoller and host Russ Roberts get into a debate about whether large companies like Amazon are increasing or reducing consumer choice in the marketplace and about whether their size represents a loss in consumer welfare.

Stoller argues that Amazon has the power to push whatever products it wants to the front pages, and therefore can control what people can buy. It may look like you have access to an incredibly diverse set of products, but that set is actually carefully curated only to improve Amazon’s bottom line. Google and Facebook operate in the same way. Your search results or the items in your Facebook news feed are not necessarily best for you, they are merely best for Google and Facebook.

I agree with everything in the previous paragraph. I disagree that anything in it is worrisome. Stoller, like many who make similar arguments, seem to operate under the assumption that everything that is good for Amazon, or Facebook, or Google is bad for consumers. To me, the opposite is far more likely to be true. If Amazon sells me bad products I’ll stop buying from Amazon. If Google gives me bad search results, I’ll stop using Google. I hardly use Facebook at all except as a messaging service. The reality is that each of these companies only has my business because they offer a service that’s pretty good.

Now, to be fair to Stoller, he does acknowledge this argument. But he quickly dismisses it. Instead, he argues that consumers are trapped in these ecosystems. He relays a story of a parent who can’t block youtube on his kid’s computer because they need to use Google products for school. I’m sure there’s away to block youtube without blocking Google docs, but if not then I admit that this is a (small) problem. But Stoller then goes on to make larger claims that these companies can then use this power to influence our behavior. Amazon only sells books that supports it’s views. Google only shows news that works in their favor.

I decided to test these claims. I went to Amazon and searched “Amazon Monopoly.” Now it would be very easy for Amazon to manipulate these results to put itself in a positive light. It could only show me books that are in favor of monopoly power. It could show me inspirational stories written about Amazon’s rise and how much they help the consumer. It doesn’t. The second item on the list (after the board game Monopoly) is a book called “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.” The New York Times review on the page explains “Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things argues that the radical libertarian ideology and monopolistic greed of many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs helped to decimate the livelihoods of musicians and is now undermining the communal idealism of the early internet.”

I haven’t read the book, but it’s an “Amazon Best Business and Leadership Book of 2017” so it must be good. Hmm. Wait. A book that “traces the destructive monopolization of the Internet by Google, Facebook and Amazon, and that proposes a new future for musicians, journalists, authors and filmmakers in the digital age” is also highlighted by that very same Amazon as one of the best books of 2017? What’s going on here?

I suppose one option is that the book is terrible and Amazon is highlighting the worst attack on its business in the hope that people won’t read other more substantive critiques. Or it could be that Amazon doesn’t actually profit from hiding any kinds of books from consumers, even those that are openly and directly hostile to it making profits. The way Amazon makes profit is by offering products that people want. Consumers drive its business, not the other way around. I won’t argue here with Taplin’s claim that “radical libertarianism” (where?) has worked to “decimate the livelihood of musicians” but it does at least seem to be working out pretty well for his book sales.

Another test. I googled “why Google is a terrible search engine.” I also searched the exact same phrase on Bing. In one of the searches, the third result was “Reasons Why Google Search is the Best Search Engine” – the opposite of what I wanted.  In the other, “5 Reasons Not to Use Google for Search – Field Guide – Gizmodo.” comes up. If I told Stoller these results he’d probably claim vindication. Google is obviously manipulating the results.

In fact, the anti-Google headline only shows up in my Google search. The pro-Google one comes from Bing. Again, maybe Google is secretly hiding a bunch of really good critiques of its service, but it’s pretty hard to believe that’s the case. Instead, Google gave me exactly what I was looking for and Bing gave me the opposite. I think I’ll stick with Google.

Stoller does have a counterargument to the results above. He argues that it may be true that Google has better search results than Bing or others, but that’s only because they have much better data. It would take years for a startup search engine to get even a fraction of the information that Google has obtained as it rose to dominance. Google has had time to learn what works and what doesn’t firsthand in a way that could never be replicated in the current world simply because Google already exists to squash any competition. Since no search engine can ever hope to match Google’s quality, they will never be able to compete and therefore Google can never have a true competitor.

Once again, I concede everything about the previous argument. And once again I fail to see much to worry about. What Stoller is essentially arguing is that there are increasing returns to scale in the search engine market. A large firm has the ability to offer a better service at a lower price than a small firm (if they choose to). If this is the case, it’s true that a true competitor to Google is unlikely to emerge. It also makes it very difficult to envision policy responses that improves search results overall for consumers. Increasing returns means that 100 Googles 1/100 of its size would never be able to operate as efficiently as one large Google so breaking it up would likely hurt consumers rather than help. And even standard textbook solutions to natural monopoly like regulating prices seem difficult to imagine when Google offers many of its services for free (although I do have to admit my relative ignorance on the economics of natural monopoly – maybe there is a policy well suited to this situation and I just don’t know it).

Google’s size may also introduce additional benefits. If Google was engaged in cutthroat competition that drove its profits to zero, would it ever be able to take risks? Would a smaller Google be working on developing self driving cars that will probably take years to see any profit whatsoever? Could they have survived failures like Google glass? I also very much like having all of my Google services integrated automatically. If each piece was run by a separate company, would the experience be as seamless?

The benefits of size are perhaps even clearer for Amazon. If Amazon were broken into smaller online marketplaces, would they ever have increased their shipping capacity as much as they have? I don’t see how they ever could. These companies can only be as successful as they are at providing benefits to the consumer because they are so large.

Perhaps some day in the future Amazon, Facebook, and Google will begin to exploit their market power and make profits at the expense of their consumers. I have no confidence in my ability to predict how the market will look 10 or 20 years from now. I am more confident in saying that that day is not today. It seems quite clear to me that these companies (as well as many others) have been able to achieve the success they have had only by giving consumers what they want.