The Party on the Left

The headline is designed to fool you. This column is not about politics.

In his 1971 song “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Pete Townshend sang that “the party on the left is now the party on the right,” and he “won’t get fooled again” by the idea that revolutions change anything.

It was a generation’s bow to cynicism, an attitude that still dominates our culture. But there’s some validity to the concept as it relates to antitrust law. When you kick a monopoly you have to watch that another one doesn’t just rise to replace it.

I’ve long been skeptical of the idea that AOL might become a replacement for Microsoft as a “big, bad” monopoly. I don’t think it has the market control that Microsoft had. I live very well without an AOL icon on my computer screen, for instance.

What Bill Gates never understood about the Justice Department case against him was that it wasn’t really aimed at his business practices per se. Hard dealing is fine as long as you don’t own the market.

The question is whether AOL’s hard dealing against Disney would, or could, threaten the free market if it combined with Time Warner.

The obvious answer is “Of course not,” but there is something to fear in these machinations. That something is the specter of oligopoly.

An oligopoly is a shared monopoly, and antitrust law needs to be as fearful of it as it is of a monopoly. An oligopoly can fix prices and restrict market choices just as a monopoly can, only more subtly and (hence) more dangerously.

Many cases have been made against Coca-Cola and Pepsi, for instance, based on charges that they own a shared monopoly. Most of the cases have failed because Coke and Pepsi compete so fiercely with one another, but, without antitrust law, I doubt if you could find a Dr. Pepper in your office soda machine.

What we need to fear in this case isn’t an AOL monopoly, but an AOL-Disney-Viacom-GE-Fox oligopoly. If you don’t work for a property owned by one of the media “Big Five,” you won’t get on TV. At the very least, you may have to associate with one to garner any airtime at all, joining its “keiretsu” and accepting its restrictions on what you say and how you say it. Also remember that people or things that don’t exist on TV (like this column, for instance) still don’t exist in the public mind.

Does this threaten the Internet? Consider that 6 of the 20 largest Internet properties, according to Media Metrix, are now owned by one of these five companies. This is true despite the fact that, in terms of the Internet, most of these people are completely clueless.

So, no, I don’t think AOL is the “new boss,” that there’s a monopoly power out there that is about to squash free expression. But I do think the question of oligopoly is one that’s worth looking into. It’s best we get to it because it may be that in a few years, the fight against a media oligopoly is the only story that’s certain not to be televised.

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