Big Tech Funds a Think Tank Pushing for Fewer Rules. For Big Tech.
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — A year ago, antitrust officials from Australia, Brazil, China, Japan and eight other countries enjoyed $110-a-plate steak dinners and unlimited pours from $70 bottles of wine at a beachfront hotel surrounded by panoramic views of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.
The opulent meal was the culmination of a weeklong conference in scenic Huntington Beach, Calif., for 30 foreign government officials who enforce competition laws. The trip was organized and mostly paid for by the Global Antitrust Institute, a part of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Regulators spent the days in classes with the institute’s staff, which included a senior federal judge and a former commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission. The program was presented as continuing education for antitrust regulators — a way to learn more about the economic underpinnings of competition law.
But critics and past attendees of similar conferences run by the institute said the sessions were more about delivering a clear message to international officials that benefited the companies paying for the event: The best way to foster competition is to maintain a hands-off approach to antitrust law.
The Global Antitrust Institute is bankrolled in large part by tech companies — corporate donors like Google, Amazon and Qualcomm — that are facing antitrust scrutiny from some of the regulators who attended its programs, according to hundreds of pages of emails and documents obtained through open records laws, interviews with four past conference participants, and observation of a conference last year in Huntington Beach.
The documents included donation checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars from Google and Amazon, as well as a three-year, multimillion-dollar donation agreement from Qualcomm. Those checks were a key component of the institute’s $2.1 million budget in the year that ended in June 2019.
The emails illustrated how the institute’s leaders, including Joshua Wright, who has longstanding ties to Google, have worked closely with tech companies to fend off antitrust criticism. And they showed how the institute cultivated and tapped relationships with top competition officials — even, in an aggressive courtship, asking Brazil’s top antitrust regulator to recruit the country’s judges to attend its conferences with offers of business-class flights.
“This is not a significant expenditure for these companies. And the potential benefits, even making it moderately less likely to be on the losing end of an ambitious antitrust case is worth that price many times over,” said Michael Carrier, a professor at Rutgers University’s law school.
It’s difficult to determine the impact of the institute. But in Brazil, a tribunal last year dismissed three separate investigations into Google, which controls 97 percent of the country’s search traffic, for a lack of evidence.
Regulatory scrutiny is, unquestionably, a global issue for tech companies. Until recently, Europe was the main threat of antitrust action. Google has lost three competition cases there since 2017. Amazon is now the target of an inquiry in Europe for abusing its dominance in online commerce to squeeze smaller rivals. Qualcomm has paid more than $1 billion in fines to Europe for its anticompetitive behavior.
Now other countries are also starting to take a more aggressive approach. Australia and Brazil are investigating Google, while Amazon is also facing an antitrust probe in India.
The companies are also facing investigations at home. After years of a hands-off approach to monopoly enforcement, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are under investigation from federal watchdogs, state attorneys general and Congress. The Justice Department is expected to bring a case against Google in the coming months in what would be one of the biggest antitrust actions in the United States since the 1990s.
The chief executives of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple will appear before lawmakers soon as part of a congressional antitrust investigation into their market powers.
Mr. Wright, the institute’s executive director, said its mission, curriculum and lectures were available online for the public to assess and that “open-minded observers” will see the quality of its instruction from legal academics and economists with experience enforcing antitrust laws and prosecuting cases.
“That combination of academic and practical experience is one reason enforcement agencies’ officials from around the world consistently choose to send their staff to our programs,” Mr. Wright said in a statement.