Competition is at the heart of contemporary communications policy dilemmas (Khan, 2017; Napoli & Dwyer, 2018; Winseck, 2017). The disciplining value of market competition is often taken for granted in contemporary communications policy discourse and invoked to both delegitimate state intervention in communications sectors and to justify it. However, discourses of competition and their role in shaping communications policy are understudied. This gap is particularly salient as reforming antitrust and promoting competition gain currency as an increasingly global policy elite response to the problems associated with digital platforms like Amazon, Facebook, and Google – from the spread of disinformation to surveillance and the commodification of user data.
Through stakeholder and policy document analysis, this article examines the role of competition discourses in addressing the power of digital platforms in a series of 2019 U.S. congressional hearings on the subject, with implications for the wider global debate. Denaturalizing competition as simply a technocratic concept, the article traces how the politics underlying these discourses emerges at multiple stages. In particular, following critical policy studies, which emphasizes the power of discursive policy problem definition (Black, 2002; Fischer, 2003; Schmidt, 2015), the article maps how stakeholders’ discourses articulate the problem they try to address, what solutions they present, and what these solutions imply about stakeholders’ visions of digital communications.
The findings reveal that even the most reform-oriented of these discourses imply commercial notions of digital communications, expanding market logics within communications policy, while refocusing reform efforts away from democratic values and social justice. Following Cammaerts & Mansell (2020), the analysis foregrounds “discursive practices, both repressive and emancipatory [revealing] that many currently proposed policy and regulatory responses to digital platform power have contradictory consequences for economic value generation and for upholding public values” (p. 147), while denaturalizing “the prevailing digital platform common sense” (p. 146). Cumulatively, the case study exposes the politics of competition in addressing digital platform power and describes the stakes in framing the response to platforms in the language of antitrust reform.