Without Context, Semafor Launders Tech Industry Lobbying semafor.com

Semafor published in a new format it calls Signals — sponsored by Microsoft, though I am earnestly sure no editorial lines were crossed — aggregated commentary about the U.S. iPhone antitrust case:

If the government wins the suit, “the walls of Apple’s walled garden will be partially torn down,” wrote New York Times opinion columnist Peter Coy, meaning its suite of products will be “more like a public utility,” available to its rivals to use. “That seems to me like stretching what antitrust law is for,” Coy wrote. Tech policy expert Adam Kovacevich agreed, writing on Medium that people have long gone back and forth between iPhones and Android devices. “People vote with their pocketbooks,” Kovacevich said. “Why should the government force iPhones to look more like Androids?”

Many argue that this is an issue of consumer choice, and the government shouldn’t intervene to help companies such as Samsung gain a better footing in the market. The Consumer Choice Center’s media director put it this way: “Imagine the classroom slacker making the case to the teacher that the straight-A student in the front of the class is being anti-competitive by not sharing their lecture notes with them.”

The Kovacevich article this links to is the same one I wrote about over the weekend. His name caught my eye, but not nearly as much as the way he is described: as a “tech policy expert”. That is not wrong, but it is incomplete. He is the CEO of the Chamber of Progress, an organization that lobbies for policies favourable to the large technology companies that fund it.

It also seems unfair to attribute the latter quote to the Consumer Choice Center without describing what it represents — though I suppose its name makes it pretty obvious. It positions itself at the centre of “the global grassroots movement for consumer choice”, and you do not need the most finely tuned bullshit detector to be suspicious of the “grassroots” nature of an organization promoting the general concept of having lots of stuff to buy.

Indeed, the Center acknowledges being funded by a wide variety of industries, including “energy” — read: petroleum — nicotine, and “digital”. According to tax documents, it pulled in over $4 million in 2022. It shares its leadership with another organization, Consumer Choice Education. It brought in $1.5 million in 2022, over half of which came from the Atlas Network, a network of libertarian think tanks that counts among its supporters petroleum companies and the billionaire Koch brothers. The ostensibly people-centred Center just promoting the rights of consumers is, very obviously, supported by corporations either directly or via other pro-business organizations that also get their funding either directly from corporations or via other — oh, you understand how this works.

None of that inherently invalidates the claims made by either Kovacevich or Stephen Kent for the Consumer Choice Center, but I fault Semafor for the lack of context for either quote. Both people surely believe what they wrote. But organizations that promote the interests of big business exist to provide apparently independent supporting voices because it is more palatable than those companies making self-interested arguments.