“One of the privileges of success in this country is government scrutiny, and that’s OK.” — Bill Gates, 1998.
“I believe Amazon should be scrutinized. … Our responsibility is to make sure we pass such scrutiny with flying colors.” — Jeff Bezos, 2020.
Those two quotes, more than two decades apart, illustrate Bill Gates’ unique vantage point on the U.S. government’s scrutiny of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook. In short, he’s been there, as the then-CEO of Microsoft, grappling with a landmark antitrust investigation and trial, before ultimately settling with the U.S. Justice Department.
During our hour-long conversation with Gates at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday, we focused largely on big picture issues like the pandemic and climate change. But given the history, the parallels, and the recent House antitrust report, it also made sense to get his expert opinion on the current antitrust landscape in the tech industry.
“Certainly, scrutiny is important,” he said. “These companies are shaping communications, commerce, and politicians have to think, ‘OK, what are the rules there?’”
However, he added, “I think it’s kind of unfortunate that they’re grouping the companies together, because there’s so many different mutations.”
Related: GeekWire Summit: Bill Gates says world can avoid climate ‘disaster,’ if we learn lesson from pandemic
The report last week by the U.S. House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee dealt with all of the companies individually but proposed a common set of remedies, including a higher bar for acquisitions, and keeping companies from participating in marketplaces they operate.
But Gates said social media alone brings up a range of unique issues, such as advertising to kids, surveillance, online bullying, and conspiracy theories. Likewise, he noted, e-commerce raises separate issues, such as data sharing among different shopping sites.
“If they want to get serious, they’re going to have to focus in, enumerate the issues, and then debate them,” he said. “So I’d say we’re kind of at the beginning. And of course, you always have to watch Europe, as well. They have a tendency to be willing to try out regulations, often before the U.S. does.”
Microsoft isn’t one of the companies facing U.S. antitrust scrutiny currently, but it is the subject of an antitrust complaint filed by Slack in the European Union.
Having been through the experience himself, what advice would he give Bezos and Amazon?
Gates said the main mistake he made in Microsoft’s antitrust case “was not realizing how important it would be to develop relationships” in Washington, D.C. “These companies are not making the same mistake,” he said, referencing their teams of people in the nation’s capital, and noting that Bezos even has a home there.
But I pointed out that Amazon has been aggressive in its response, in ways reminiscent of Microsoft’s approach, and I wondered if that was wise.
“Well, if you’re proud of your work, and the effect it’s had, that can be interpreted in a negative way. Amazon services have been very helpful during the pandemic … and that’s been a very good thing. So they’re justified and proud of some of their work,” he said.
“And if you have politicians saying, ‘OK, you’re overall hurting society,’ it’s OK for them to speak up. This all shouldn’t be about, aggressive, non-aggressive. It should be about, how can consumers benefit through competition that furthers innovation, and a little less about demonizing the specific people involved.”
Gates added with a laugh, “But maybe that’s my personal view that others don’t share.”
[The full interview with Gates, and other GeekWire Summit sessions, are available on-demand exclusively to attendees of the virtual event. Learn more and register here.]