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Antitrust Bill a Threat to Consumers’ Security and Paychecks

By Dan Savickas

Elected officials in Washington certainly have their hands full with existential crises. Inflation has surged to record high levels, increasing the costs of basic necessities. Beyond that, global geopolitical unrest has led to the threat of broad cyber-attacks being more real than it has in years. Yet, far too many policymakers instead seem preoccupied with taking up legislation that would not only fail to address both of these issues, but threatens to exacerbate them.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO) would both hinder security on digital devices and require American consumers to open their wallets. The bill would subject American tech companies to antitrust action if they were found to be preferencing their own products and services. It also creates punishments if smart phone providers“unfairly” bar content creators from their digital app marketplaces. 

In response to concerns about the security implications, the bill sponsors included a brief section on exempting bans on companies that might have ties to China. However, this throwaway language to appease doubters does little to solve the actual problems with the bill. The bill would still presume that any ban is anticompetitive, with the burden of proof falling on tech companies to show that their actions were not an effort to stifle competition. AICO, at its core, is a disincentive to conduct even the most reasonable security measures.

Companies bar potentially malicious apps from their marketplaces for a good reason. They want their consumers to be able to trust their data is protected when they use these devices. Companies insist on their own in-house security protocols because they want to ensure they know exactly who is accessing their software and what steps have been taken to ensure safety. Under AICO, these commonsense steps to secure smart devices across America would be potentially illegal. At the very least, every tech company in the nation would think twice before taking these measures, lest they incur the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission.

Efforts to assuage the real cybersecurity concerns with this legislation have been unconvincing at best. Recently, Bruce Schneier, a professor of cybersecurity policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, wrote an open letter to the committees of jurisdiction on AICO, urging its adoption. His reasoning did not exactly inspire confidence in the future of cybersecurity should AICO be passed. According to Schneier, “app store monopolies cannot protect users from every risk.” Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that if multiple companies operate popular app stores, by definition, neither is a monopoly. Schneier’s prevailing argument is that there are already cybersecurity threats, so creating more vulnerability should not be seen as an issue, as if device security is black and white and not a scale.

It is rather unfortunate that AICO’s proponents cannot take the time to either quell concerns about the security implications or address them with meaningful legislative changes. Rather, the entirety of this legislative push has been about attempting to willfully ignore those concerns. This is evidenced by the fact that AICO was never subject to a single hearing with an expert witness, nor was the amendment process played out in public, but rather behind closed doors after the bill was rubber-stamped in committee. There has been no meaningful effort to eliminate threats to national security caused by the sloppiness of this legislation.

Another rather tone deaf argument made by AICO proponents is embodied in one of Schneier’s closing lines. He contends, “Yes, there is malware. Yes, there are attacks. But there is security and safety as well. Hundreds of companies innovate in this space, developing new security and privacy technologies that we are free to install if we choose.” Americans may be free to install these services, but these services are not free.

This argument is reminiscent of the phrase often attributed to Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake,” in response to the struggles of the poor and needy in France. In the midst of record inflation, facing legislation that will harm the security of their smart phone devices, the response of this pro-AICO Harvard intellectual is, in essence, “Let them buy antivirus software.” It is as out of touch as it is insulting. 

In truth, AICO is an effort by ambitious politicians in Washington – on both sides of the political aisle – to settle their political vendetta against American tech companies. Unfortunately, they have determined the data privacy of millions of Americans is acceptable collateral damage in this pursuit. With everything else going on in the nation, and the world, this is a poor dedication of focus and the country will be worse off for it.

Published on June 17, 2022