Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up.
Today Axios reporter and fellow Swiftie Ashley Gold joins me in the studio for a lighthearted romp to chat about what’s happening in Washington when it comes to consumers and tech. We talk about the Ticketmaster fiasco, the Federal Trade Commission, and we handicapped whether or not Congress can get anything done before the end of the year.
Niki: Today in the studio, we have one of our very few repeat guests, reporter Ashley Gold.
Ashley: Welcome. Thank you for having me again.
Niki: So you are, I mean, you've been covering tech forever at The Information, at Politico, at BBC. You're now at Axios. We'll hit a number of things you've been talking about lately, from Amazon Prime to Taylor Swift, if that sounds good.
Ashley: Exactly the things I'm into, so it's great.
Niki: Okay, perfect [chuckling]. I saw you on CBS TV talking about Amazon Prime and something happening in DC on this issue.
Ashley: Absolutely. So, the Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon claiming that they are signing people up for Amazon Prime against their will. And also, y’know, making it really, really hard to cancel your subscription to Amazon Prime.
So, they said, basically, that they've tricked millions of consumers into this. I don't doubt that it is difficult to cancel Amazon Prime. It's, y’know, often difficult to cancel any online service. They do it on purpose. They want to keep you. They have incentives to keep you as a subscriber, but this is a pretty big lawsuit, and I'm sure Amazon is prepared to fight it pretty aggressively. And what they have on their side is that Prime is wildly popular, and people really depend on it, and love it.
The FTC lately is really into going after websites and services for dark patterns, and that's all the ways websites use design and having a lot of pages to click through to sort of keep you on the website and sort of, I don't want to say trick, but, maybe, lead you to something that you wouldn't have originally chosen just because of the way the website was designed. So they're really into going after dark patterns that, sort of, get consumers hooked and keep them paying for services.
Niki: So, they can tell where you're looking, clicking, draw your eyes to certain things?
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. And in the case of Amazon Prime, Amazon's internal name for the process to cancel Prime was Project Iliad, which, y’know, obviously [Niki: That's not good!] Which, y’know, [Niki: chuckling] obviously would imply it was a long journey to get it canceled. They did make some changes in response to FTC inquiries. Now it's a little easier to cancel Prime, but the FTC is not satisfied.
Niki: It's always incredible to me, having worked in-house at tech companies, when people label things-
Ashley: [interrupts excitedly] Right, like, why would you do that? Someone's going to find out! [laughs]
Niki: Yeah, they're not thinking about it, but then I've also been in the situation where then you send an email to the company saying, “Listen, we've got to stop using war analogies. It's, like, not super helpful.” And then, that becomes... [Ashley: No one likes that!] But then the email telling people not to becomes the issue!
Ashley: Right! And you can't; It's hard to argue that your process to cancel prime isn't hard when you yourself, y’know, named it after, y’know, an ancient Greek text. [laughs]
Niki: Right. That's like, yeah, exactly. So I, I think of this as, I wonder, and I, I'd like your assessment of it because you cover competition and antitrust so closely, but I will tell you: Sirius Radio, God help you [Ashley: chuckles] if you want to try to unsubscribe.
Ashley: Yeah, I've been there, actually. [Niki: Yeah] Yeah, I mean, I would argue, y’know, I don't have a stake in this game, obviously. I'm covering it as an outside observer, but I am a consumer and user of many different tech and media products. Just like everyone else, and I've had much more difficult experiences canceling other subscription services, whether that's SiriusXM, Comcast, Vios, Netflix, or Hulu.
Amazon is certainly not the only one who makes it a little difficult to cancel the subscription. I think why Amazon was singled out here is because they're huge. They're massively profitable. They're massively popular. And Lina Khan, the Chair of the FTC, she's long had it out for Amazon. I mean, she made her name on a paper in law school that argued that, that Amazon should not both be able to sell products and be the platform.
We're all expecting another suit against Amazon from the FTC. That would be more about competition and not consumer protection, whereas this suit is more about consumer protection. But I'm not surprised to see this at all from the FTC, and I think they would argue, “Well, maybe it's not the hardest, but it's the biggest.”
Niki: Yeah, I think you make a good point about the idea is that the scale of Amazon is why an agency is going after them. [Ashley: Right!]
And yet, because consumers really like Amazon, I mean, when you look at the sort of inside assessment of brands, people really like Amazon [Ashley: Yeah] mostly because they have really good customer service. It's easy to return things. You know, I should walk to the end of my block and buy. [Ashley: You should!] I know! And I've started it.
You're not wrong. I am working on it. It's on my list. I have very [Ashley: [chuckling] Just get your steps in!!] I have so many.
Well, my steps are also on my New Year's resolution and my quarterly update of my New Year's resolution.
Ashley: All right! We'll check back on that later [laughing].
Niki: Okay. We'll check back. [laughing] We'll check back on if I'm walking to the hardware store. On my block. [Ashley: Yeah] There's really no excuse but the convenience and all that.
People love it. And it kind of leads to, and later in this conversation, I want to discuss Congress, but in theory, a law should apply to everyone, not single out certain companies.
Ashley: Right. And I've seen a lot of arguments that if we just had a better online privacy law or we had specific sort of new laws about consumer protection that are updated for the digital age, then you wouldn’t have to call out individual companies and bring lawsuits.
There would just be rules of the road that people had to follow.
And that's kind of the theme of all tech policy the past 10 years or so.
Niki: That is exactly the theme. And so it's, it's big is considered bad as opposed to the underlying mechanics, because y’know, “Here today, gone tomorrow.”
There are so many tech companies people forget, juggernauts that are gone. Like, Yahoo's gone [Ashley: Mm hmm] So, things can, things can just change!
Ashley: Things change!!
Niki: Things change. Okay. Speaking of change at the Federal Trade Commission and I don't want to go too much into it because I think people are, sort o,f like, “Okay, we get it an agency,” [Ashley: chuckling] but one of the commissioners recently resigned somewhat dramatically [Ashley: right] over what's happening, and you just wrote a piece on the drama.
Ashley: Yeah! So, Lina Khan is one of the most historic chairs of the FTC. She's very young. She's 34. We're actually the same age. [chuckles] But she...
Niki: Millennials taking over!
Ashley: Yes! And that's awesome. She's really shaking up the agency and doing things that they haven't really done since the seventies or so, when the FTC was a little more activist. So, y’know, there's been stories trickling out of the FTC that she's sort of doing things on her own without, y’know, consulting all the different commissioners.
She's consolidating a lot of power. Christine Wilson, formerly a Republican Commissioner, sort of, left in a fury. She posted an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal about how bad the FTC had gotten. She sort of claims that, you know, Lina Khan was bringing down the entire agency and that it wasn't what it used to be because of her.
So, we no longer have any Republican commissioners at the FTC, which makes things a little difficult.
Niki: Repeat that!
Ashley: We no longer have any Republican commissioners at the FTC. It is... three Democrats.
Niki: That is, listeners, not the way it's supposed to go!
Ashley: Right. It's a bipartisan agency. It's always prided itself on working well together from a bipartisan basis. Under the Trump administration, under the Obama administration. Right now, there’s no dissent, which, y’know, she can get things through really easily, but at the same time, it sort of hurts her reputation because any idea on the Hill that she was biased or only doing things Democrats like, or, y’know, not doing things with bipartisan buy-in, there's no argument back to that.
Niki: And I sort of think of this, I understand that there is certainly the whole remit of the FTC is consumer protection [Ashley: mm-hmm] and making sure we have, y’know, fair, fair markets and fair competition and, and this is an activist agency, but it's not the only one.
I mean, this entire, I think, DC, right now, is defined by unelected bureaucrats doing things because Congress is pretty locked up.
Ashley: Pretty paralyzed. Pretty paralyzed. Yeah, I mean, the Justice Department is also very active in the competition space right now, but they fly a little more under the radar for whatever reason.
Jonathan Kanter, who's the Head of Anti-Trust at the DOJ, is, y’know, he has a lot of the same bona fides as Lina Khan, but he's been able to sort of play it a little more quietly, get a little, get fewer people mad at him. But they're pursuing, y’know, a huge case against Google, two huge cases against Google, and it's definitely something to watch going forward.
Niki: So, you brought up the Department of Justice, and there are murmurings, rumblings. It's expected that they'll bring a case against Ticketmaster [Ashley: mm-hmm] imminently.
Ashley: Yeah, so that, those are the rumblings I've heard. I've been on this beat long enough to know when there are rumblings that a case might be coming, that you might have to wait like a year and a half or two years. [Niki: Yeah] Soon could mean anything.
Niki: That's so true!
Ashley: Soon could mean like my child's entire lifespan, who's two now, so I've learned not to, y’know, hold my breath on when a case is coming, but that is the word around town.
Niki: I know!
So, the reason Ticketmaster is being examined so closely is Taylor Swift.
Ashley: [laughing] Is because of Taylor Swift!! Taylor Swift leads to antitrust action. She has that power.
Niki: She absolutely does.
Ashley: The power this woman holds.
Niki: She does. I went to the show in Philadelphia.
Ashley: I'm very jealous.
Niki: It was epic. [Ashley: I'm very jealous] It was amazing. I know. I don't know why I'm saying this to you because I know that you...
Ashley: [quietly with humor] You don't need to brag. It's fine.
Niki: Okay. [still chuckling] So, but this is the thing about Taylor Swift. Her economic power and her fan base are, sort of, breaking the edges [Ashley: Totally] of the ticketing industry in a way that is rare. [Ashley: Yeah] Right now, everything is in the headlines because you have fans spending, I mean, face value through Ticketmaster is a [hushed voice] thousand bucks for a ticket. I think it's good that the government's looking at this because we, we aren't really examining the way we're held hostage in some of these ecosystems.
Ashley: Totally. I mean, the thing about the Taylor Swift fan base is they're very online. So, you have these hordes of fans that are tweeting and putting stuff on Instagram and TikTok and really sort of an army against Ticketmaster, who they see as the enemy, but as we've discussed, it's a little more complicated than Ticketmaster just being the behemoth and being able to sort of set the rules, which is definitely true, but artists also have a role to play here.
They can set prices for their tickets that don't go above a certain point. They can decide to not turn on dynamic pricing, which is that feature that makes ticket prices go up when there's high demand. They can choose to make tickets all be available when a sale starts rather than trickling it out. [Niki: Yes]
There's a lot of decisions artists in their camps make that I don't think fans see. It's very easy to blame Ticketmaster. So I'm not saying Ticketmaster is perfect, but I think that the picture is a little more complicated.
I mean, I think, y’know, maybe Ticketmaster shouldn’t have been allowed to buy Live Nation. I don't know. You can't go back and undo that, but, so, we'll have to see what happens. But it's the way that it's reignited this conversation on ticketing is fascinating.
I mean, I personally have had good experiences using, like, smaller ticketing companies [Niki: mm-hmm] that aren't Ticketmaster for the music festivals I go to, and it'll be interesting to see if those, those companies get a little more empowered here.
Niki: I think you're right that people sort of don't think about the fact that the artists set the supply. [Ashley: Right] So, sometimes there's false scarcity, so Taylor Swift being an example, some seats would be released for 300 bucks.
Ashley: Yeah, I've seen it happen myself when I tried to go to the show in Pittsburgh that there's last-minute ticket drops, and it's like, “Why weren't these just sold to begin with?”
Niki: Right, so there's, there's artificial scarcity, there is, It's the dynamic pricing, which if you want to just say, hey, we'll keep the prices lower. [Ashley: Yeah] This is the price.
Ashley: Yeah. I mean, I don't know if Taylor Swift herself made that decision, but someone in her camp did.
Niki: Yeah, exactly. I feel like she did. [chuckling] I don't know.
Ashley: She's a capitalist. She is raking in the money on this tour.
Niki: And you know what? Good for her.
Ashley: Good for her.
Niki: She's an activist capitalist. There are a lot of feelings about Taylor Swift. [chuckling]
Ashley: She loves making money!
Niki: And why not? [chuckling]
Ashley: It's fine. It's fine. [laughing]
Niki: Actually, so many people give me heat about my, sort of, interest in Taylor Swift's capitalist activism, but she got totally, y’know, she was, she was not able to buy her own music back. [Ashley: Yeah] It was sold to a private equity company.
Niki: And so, she took matters into her own hands. [Ashley: Mm hmm]
She surely did! I mean, I do think she's making, and I'm not, [hushed voice] I think it's 10 million dollars a night.
Ashley: Yeah. I mean, I don't even know what you do with all that money, but God bless.
Niki: Yeah, exactly.
Okay. So we're likely going to see. DOJ action against them. I think this will bring up an issue that actually impacts people directly that they think about.
Ashley: It's a lot more tangible. It's a lot more easy for people to understand than, sort of, these more future-looking views of antitrust that have been pushed in DC the past couple years.
Niki: And it's something people are actually unhappy about. [Ashley: Totally] Where they're not really unhappy about Prime.
Ashley: [laughing] They're really not. Maybe not most people.
Niki: Maybe not most people. [chuckling] So, which leads us to, I want to talk quickly about junk fees, which is sort of related to ticketing, but the White House recently talked about Airbnb committed to this; actually Ticketmaster did, which is all-in pricing.
So, they just explain, like, you would, you would say VRBO, which by the way, is Verbo, but I don't think anyone's ever going to say that.
Ashley: I say Vreebo, like a big loser. [Niki: Vreebo?] Yeah, it's not right. I just say it.
Niki: No one knows. But when you're on... Vreeebo. [both laugh]
When you're on VRBO, you end up with these fees that you don't see in the nightly price.
And so, Airbnb and Ticketmaster and a few other companies sort of agreed as part of this White House pledge to show all in pricing, like this is the price, the price is, the price, is the price. [Ashley: Yeah] But it's voluntary, right? And so, one of the things I want to turn to is Congress. S,o actually there is a bill in Congress that would make this apply to everyone.
Ashley: Right! I mean, I think it's an easy thing for companies to support. It just, y’know, adds a degree of transparency. And transparency is so often what, like, people are really calling for.
They just don't like to feel duped or, like, they were, like, tricked into paying more, or y’know, it's happened to me, like, I've gone to book an Airbnb, and I think it's a certain price, and then all-in I'm, like, “Oh this actually is out of my price range.”
I could see Congress all, y’know, supporting on a bipartisan basis getting this in law, but Congress is just deadlocked. Even stuff they all agree on, they just cannot get it over the finish line, so, I, my hopes are not high there.
Niki: Yeah. It's unfortunate because I think you're right. Transparency is an easy thing. It's not, it's not penalizing anyone. It's not constraining the market in any way, [Ashley: mm-hmm] it's just saying everybody has to abide by the same rules.
Ashley: Yeah! And whether it's, y’know, ticketing or just like companies and how they use their algorithms and how an AI makes its decisions, like, people just want to know how it works. [Niki: Yeah] So, transparency is a very easy thing to sort of start with.
Niki: But they're not going to get it done! Well, they might get it done, probably not going to get it done, which leads to another major part of your beat, which is what's happening on the Hill. So, maybe we start with antitrust.
So, in theory, you, y’know, regular order is that Congress makes decisions that would apply to every company on competition.
[Ashley: mm-hmm] You wouldn't have an agency that has no Republicans [chuckling] making decisions.
Ashley: Yeah, going after individual companies. So, last year antitrust was the main tech policy topic being debated in Congress.
It was very antitrust-heavy. And I think that's because we had leaders in both the Senate and the House that were in support of that, but now in the House, we lost David Cicilline, the Democrat from Rhode Island, and Ken Buck from Colorado is no longer head of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee.
So, you only have the Senate pushing this anymore, and it's sort of a handful of Senate Democrats that are pushing for tech antitrust action against the biggest companies. And it's just not playing the way that it used to. I mean, AICOA, which is the big antitrust bill that almost made it over the finish line last year, it was reintroduced really quietly.
It lost some co-sponsors and I just don't think anything's going to happen. I think they sort of had their moment and it passed. [Niki: Yeah]
So, as far as Congress and competition goes, you'll, you'll see groups pushing and they're not going to give up, but I don't have a lot of faith. [Niki: It's a steep climb]
It is a steep, it was a steep climb in the best of circumstances and they don't even have those anymore.
Niki: Right. So. Right. One of the things I constantly talk about is TikTok as a surveillance device. [Ashley: Yeah] Everybody, y’know, everybody lost their minds when there was a balloon floating over the United States. I’m like,
Ashley: Oh, yeah, the balloon? I forgot! [laughing]
Niki: Yeah. So, we're all losing our minds looking up at this balloon. It's like, there's a surveillance.
Ashley: [interrupts shouting] There's a balloon in your phone right now!!
Niki: You're being surveilled in your pocket. [chuckling] No one cares. [Ashley: Oh my gosh] And so, I'm curious what you think about TikTok. There was a lot [Ashley: Yeah] at the beginning of this year, a lot of discussion about banning it. [Ashley: mm-hmmh]
Ashley: Yeah. I mean, we've been tracking TikTok for a long time. There's - CFIUS has still not made a decision on TikTok ownership. That case has been languishing for years.
Niki: So wait, just quickly, CFIUS is, [ Ashley: [in funny tone] CFIUS is] yeah, foreign investment in the US.
Ashley: Yes. It is an interagency board. They've been reviewing the ownership, ownership structure of TikTok for a long time now, and they have not come to any decisions.
So, in Congress, we had a big TikTok hearing with the CEO.
Lawmakers were sort of, y’know, taking their time in the spotlight to really appear serious on China and information security, but it was a lot of theater. I mean, nothing really happened after.
There were some follow-up letters; there were some responses from TikTok, and the Restrict Act, which was put out by Senator Mark Warner that's been viewed as sort of the main vehicle to do something on TikTok, but it's it's not moving.
We're waiting on a new version to come out. So, TikTok is just sort of flying under the radar, hoping that moment passes.
I mean, I think their time will come.
Niki: I think TikTok is interesting because it's, it's an example of much of Congress agreeing and very few Americans caring.
Ashley: Right! It's not popular.
Niki: It's not popular.
Whereas people saying all-in pricing and transparency, that is actually something people can agree and care about, but it is, it's wildly popular.
Ashley: It's wildly popular and you know, there's elections coming up. You don't want to be viewed as the lawmaker that took away TikTok, [Niki: chuckles] especially vulnerable Democrats who want Joe Biden to win reelection.
Yeah, that you don't want the headline risk of something that there's no voter demographic that's calling for.
Ashley: Yeah, I mean. It's probably not like the biggest thing in the Democrat’s playbook that, y’know, they're worried about the TikTok voters, but I'm sure it's something they're thinking about.
Niki: Yeah. Well, especially because they're so sticky. So, you get those, I mean, after that hearing, people were just getting dragged on TikTok.
Ashley: Really! Some really funny content out there. I'm not going to lie. [chuckling]
Niki: There was actually some excellent content, but I have friends who download it and then send it to me [Ashley: yeah [laughing]] because I won't use TikTok [chuckling].
This is my sort of, like, faux boycotting of it. Okay, so let's end on a potentially optimistic note. What is something you think might get done in Congress on tech?
Ashley: So I think, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been very... vocal on AI. He's taken the lead on these Senate conversations about AI. And to me that, y’know, that says something.
If the Senate Majority Leader is talking about it, doing working groups, doing high-level briefings, promising a series of roundtables in the fall, and promising a legislative package, I think he's serious. I mean, people are saying this is the next CHIPS and Science Act, and he's really determined to move an AI package the way CHIPS eventually did move, which took a lot of effort, but it eventually did happen.
Niki: With a lot of bipartisan support!
Ashley: With a lot of bipartisan support.
He just unveiled his plan for this AI process to sort of, move forward into the fall. And it's, it's pretty lofty. We're still talking about AI at a pretty high level, but the level of seriousness is something I haven't seen with other tech policy issues for a while.
Niki: Yeah. What do you think about children’s safety? I bring this up because it is something that we've also talked about on this podcast, and I feel like there is a lot of support to do something.
Ashley: Absolutely! So, there's a lot of bipartisan consensus that children's safety online needs to be better, needs to be stronger, that kids are being exploited online or they're addicted to social media, but there's sort of warring camps on, like, what the solution is.
I mean, you have groups of lawmakers that think it's all Section 230's fault and that if Section 230 was weakened, they would be forced to take down, y’know, more sort of dangerous content. And then, you have folks like Ed Markey, who just want there to be stronger privacy laws for kids. He put out a new version of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.
So, between what Markey's been proposing and what other lawmakers like Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn have been proposing, there's a lot of ideas out there with a lot of momentum, but there's a lot of disagreement on like what is the best, best solution. So, if anything's going to happen on privacy and online content, it will have to do with kids.
I, I still think we're far from a consumer privacy protection law for everyone, unfortunately.
Niki: Very far, yeah. [Ashley: Yeah] And I think that also goes to something that people genuinely care about. I mean, care about in a visceral way. [Ashley: Absolutely] Parents, parents really care.
It is a voting issue. [Ashley: Totally. Totally] And I think, I think it actually is so damaging to big tech brands that it's a, that it's an issue that parents care about.
I mean, my strategic advice is: Give a little on it because it's, it's really, it's really problematic for a lot of people, and they care deeply.
So, I think this is only going to increase!
Niki: Okay. Well, so we ended on something that might get done: protecting kids. We'll keep an eye on the agencies. I know you're very busy. Thank you for coming in today. People can find you - you're on Twitter.
Ashley: I'm on Twitter. I haven't gotten BlueSky yet. Eventually, I'll make it over there.
I'm ashleyrgold and I recently launched a new tech policy newsletter with my colleague Maria Curie at Axios. Everyone should subscribe.
We're going deep on policy issues, y’know, in a deeper way than you might be reading in other newsletters. We're really getting down to the nitty-gritty and telling you how things work, who, which staff matters. And we're only covering what we think is really important. So we're, we're trying not to clog your inbox with too much.
Niki: We will put a link to it in the show notes. I think this might be close to our 60th episode, so.
Ashley: Oh, congrats!
Niki: I know. And I think you were on two years ago!
Niki: Thank you for coming back.
Ashley: Of course.
Niki: On our next episode, former Treasury Department spokesperson and crypto expert John Rizzo joins me in the studio to speculate on the future of digital assets. Even if you are totally over and have fully moved on to AI, this is a smart and refreshing take on the state of play. Is crypto back from the dead or just moving overseas?
John’s got a real way with words, tons of Beltway expertise, and a legit financial background that makes this one worth listening to.