Tech giants recruit moms and pop stores as antitrust allies

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Online platforms have made Mimi Striplin’s dream of selling handmade jewelry possible. Initially selling her earrings and handbags on Etsy Inc., Striplin built up enough customer base to quit her daily job, market her products on Facebook, and eventually open a store on Spring Street in Charleston, SC, where new customers and dedicated fans find it on Google Maps.

This year, she spoke to the offices of her South Carolina senators to warn that antitrust bills introduced in Congress risked complicating the online tools she uses not only to reach clients, but also to organize your team, stocks and shipments.

His argument was not just in his own name. It was part of an accelerated campaign by giant tech platforms to use small business owners to lobby against a series of antitrust bills targeting Google, Amazon.com Inc., Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Apple Inc. .

To create a chorus of popular opposition to the legislation, Google has issued alarming alerts to the millions of marketers and business owners who use the company’s tool to buy ads and promote themselves in searches. A message at the top of Google’s online dashboards now warns these customers that “the proposed legislation may make it harder to find your business online.”

But big tech companies aren’t the only ones touching the hearts of Congress with Main Street stories. A network of anti-monopoly and civil society groups is also using small businesses to do the exact opposite – that Big Techs prey on little guys and prevent them from operating without relying on internet monopolies.

“Their argument basically explains why they need to be dismantled and regulated,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “These companies have taken over the online marketplace, they have become gatekeepers and they have used that power to hold small businesses hostage. “

Competing presentations featuring small business owners have taken place over the past year in virtual panel discussions and Zoom calls with congressional staff, according to technology lobbyists and competition advocates. Tech giants and their industry groups are asking lawmakers to take more time to study the unintended consequences of invoices that would force covered platforms to change the way they present products to consumers and interact with competitors.

But there is a tight legislative window in the first half of next year to pass these measures before many lawmakers look to the November midterm elections. Even if bills targeting Big Tech enjoy bipartisan support, Republicans winning one or both houses of Congress could scramble the antitrust agenda.

The four antitrust bills targeting Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple cleared the House Judiciary Committee in June on bipartisan votes, but they still need a plenary vote. Two of these measures are accompanied by bills in the Senate.

Rob Retzlaff, head of the Connected Commerce Council, a Google and Amazon-funded group representing 15,000 small businesses, said its members have expressed “frustration at not being heard” by lawmakers.

“Congress seems out of touch with today’s reality,” Retzlaff said. “The goal Congress should have is to work with small businesses to help them recover from the pandemic, but these bills create more uncertainty when their primary concern is staying in business.”

Google has warned that a bill prohibiting companies from promoting their own products would change the way local businesses appear in searches, make ads less effective, and make other Google tools more clunky by forcing the company to disintegrate its products.

Mark Isakowitz, vice president of government affairs and public policy at Google, said Congress should “carefully consider the unintended consequences for Americans and small businesses of disrupting a line of popular products that people all use. days “.

Congressional advisers say this description of the impact of the legislation is misleading and that these warnings are part of the scare tactics of tech companies.

Small business owners touted by anti-monopoly groups are stressing the urgency of passing this legislation before online gatekeepers further consolidate their grip on the post-pandemic economy. They argue that putting limits on Google, Amazon and Facebook, now called Meta Platforms Inc., would allow for alternatives that may offer better ways to reach customers.

Some Google customers who have received alerts about a bill have resented Google’s tactics. Mike Blumenthal, a web research consultant, called the post “cheeky, misleading and utterly wrong.” A blog post that ricocheted on SEOs and web marketers described the move as “bullying small businesses into supporting Google in their fight to remain a monopoly.”

For a Virginia-based office supplies supplier, Amazon is the enemy. David Guernsey said he has been selling paperclips, office chairs and cleaning supplies to businesses for 50 years, relying on established relationships to withstand pressure to join the legions of small businesses using Amazon to reach consumers . But he says he’s worried about making new customer contacts as Amazon steps up contact with school districts and businesses that make up a large portion of its sales.

“Pretty soon they’re going to own it all, I guess, and I guess it’s their stated intention, is to sell everything to everyone,” Guernsey, who took part in a small business roundtable last month with the chair of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, Amy Klobuchar, said of Amazon. “The ubiquity of this organization is unlike anything I have ever seen. “

Aaron Seyedian, who launched his Well Paid Maids cleaning service in 2017, said advertising on Google and Facebook was a “totally opaque” process with a confusing and impersonal interface. He joined antitrust advocates because he said small business owners often feel like they have no choice but to rely on a handful of tech companies to survive. in today’s market.

Yet even though Seeyedian said he pulled his advertising dollars from Facebook and Google, he pays Google to use Gmail for business for his employees – and he wouldn’t be surprised if his cleaners use Google Maps to find customers.

Seyedian’s experience echoes that of other small business owners who say their experience with tech giants is mixed.

The October day that Striplin, the Charleston-based jewelry maker, sang Big Tech’s praises to its senators’ staff was the day after Meta’s platforms experienced global blackouts. She said that going a day without Facebook and Instagram reinforced her instinct to diversify into the platforms that helped her business take off – focusing instead on reaching customers through mailing lists, her own. website and attracting people to its physical store.

“Every small business that uses social media as a platform, your biggest fear is waking up and disappearing the next day,” Striplin said. “We work really hard as a team to make sure that we can capture these customers on our own platforms and not just rely on Facebook and Instagram and these other tech companies that own a number of things. “

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