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Maybe this textbook is from the Ma Bell era? #ThanksStockGettyImages
Enlarge / Maybe this textbook is from the Ma Bell era? #ThanksStockGettyImages
designer491 / Getty Images

Josh Hawley had some questions about how Apple came up with the money to buy back $58 billion in stock over the past year.

“I just want to focus on one major source of that income,” the Republican senator said to Apple’s lawyer. “It’s not innovation, it’s not research and development. It’s the monopoly rents that you collect out of your app store.”

I suspect you, unlike me, had better things to do last Wednesday than watch the Senate antitrust subcommittee hearing on Apple’s and Google’s mobile app stores. But if you did tune in, and you’re not an economist, you might have been baffled by that exchange. What is a monopoly rent—a term that was mentioned over and over at the hearing—and why is it bad? What does it have to do with app stores?

In economics, the concept of rent refers to money that a business makes in excess of what it would get in an efficient, competitive market. In other words, it’s money that isn’t earned by actually creating value. When corporations lobby government to give them a tax break or a special regulatory favor, they are often accused of “rent seeking.” It’s a pejorative term, and the precise limits of it are up for debate; it can be hard to draw the line between fair profits and unreasonable rents. But the basic premise is that businesses should try to get rich by improving their products and services, not by gaming the system.

Rents are a central concern of antitrust law. One of the most basic reasons why monopolies are bad is that when a company takes over a market, it can raise prices without worrying about being undercut by competitors. A “monopoly rent” is thus the money that a monopolist earns not because it offers the best product or service, but merely because it has the power to charge more. Which is exactly what the subcommittee accused Apple and Google of doing. Each company forces app developers to use their payment systems for digital purchases made within apps downloaded through their stores. And each takes up to a 30 percent cut of those purchases. This state of affairs costs companies like Spotify, which testified at the hearing, a huge amount of money, because Google and Apple control the entire mobile operating system market: Any customer who signs up on their phone, rather than on desktop, has to go through the app store toll booth. (Technically Google allows apps to be “side loaded,” without using its app store, but in practice few people bother to do that.) The commission is also at the heart of the video game developer Epic’s civil antitrust lawsuits against both companies. And, according to the senators who took Apple and Google to task, it leads app developers to pass those higher costs on to consumers.

At the hearing, Google’s and Apple’s representatives argued that most developers don’t end up paying the 30 percent rate. But they also insisted that the commission, which the biggest, most revenue-generating apps do have to pay, are competitive and industry standard. The problem is, they are the whole US industry. And no one on the antitrust subcommittee, from either party, seemed persuaded that the tens of billions in annual revenue the companies make via the commission represent anything close to what they would make if they didn’t have such control over the app market. As subcommittee chair Amy Klobuchar put it toward the end of the hearing, summing up the views of her Democratic and Republican colleagues, “I just think there’s something pretty messed up about this.”

The in-app payment commission is not the only app-store-related accusation being lodged against Apple and Google. Among other things, they also stand accused of using their access to competitors’ data to inform their own proprietary apps, and then preferencing those offerings. (In one spicy moment, Senator Richard Blumenthal asked whether the companies maintain a firewall between the teams handling data from the app store and the teams responsible for product design. The answer was not yes.) But the commission looms especially large because it is perhaps the purest distillation of monopoly rents from all the Big Tech antitrust inquiries. This helps explain why the subcommittee was uncommonly, almost eerily on-message—the usual grandstanding and weird off-topic partisan rants were basically absent. The term “monopoly rent” might be jargon, but the concept it describes is intuitive. Don’t underestimate the power of a simple argument. Google’s and Apple’s alleged rent-collecting days might be numbered.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

Chris Urmson speaks onstage during the 2019 SXSW Conference on March 9, 2019 in Austin.
Enlarge / Chris Urmson speaks onstage during the 2019 SXSW Conference on March 9, 2019 in Austin.
Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW

Few people have been working on self-driving cars longer than Chris Urmson. Urmson played a key role on Carnegie Mellon’s team in all three of DARPA’s famous Grand Challenges between 2004 and 2007. He then led Google’s self-driving project for several years. Urmson left Google after being passed over to become the CEO of the spin-off company that became Waymo.

“I’d been leading and building that team and, for all intents and purposes, general managing it for years,” Urmson told Bloomberg in a Thursday interview. “Of course I wanted to run the program.”

Bloomberg asked Urmson about Tesla’s Autopilot technology—and particularly Elon Musk’s claim that Tesla vehicles will soon be capable of operating as driverless taxis.

“It’s just not going to happen,” Urmson said. “It’s technically very impressive what they’ve done, but we were doing better in 2010.”

That’s a reference to Urmson’s time at Google. Google started recruiting DARPA Grand Challenge veterans around 2009. Within a couple of years, Google’s engineers had built a basic self-driving car that was capable of navigating a variety of roads around the San Francisco Bay Area.

A couple of years later, Google started letting employees use experimental self-driving cars for highway commutes—an application much like today’s Autopilot. Google considered licensing this technology to automakers for freeway driving. But the technology required active driver supervision. Urmson and other Google engineers decided there was too great a risk that drivers would become overly reliant on the technology and fail to monitor it adequately, leading to unnecessary deaths.

No time to waste

After leaving Google, Urmson co-founded the startup Aurora with two other prominent self-driving executives. Former Autopilot boss Sterling Anderson reportedly left Tesla in 2015 after clashing with Elon Musk over Musk’s aggressive timeline for developing fully self-driving technology. Drew Bagnell was a senior member of Uber’s self-driving project.

Late last year, Uber sold that project to Aurora, more than doubling Aurora’s headcount and cementing Aurora’s status as the largest remaining independent self-driving startup.

For the last couple of years, Aurora has focused on long-haul trucking as its first commercial product. Urmson predicted to Bloomberg that Aurora would be the first company to deploy self-driving technology for long-haul trucking routes at a “meaningful” commercial scale.

But the Uber deal could also make Aurora a contender in the self-driving taxi business. Not only has Aurora absorbed dozens of engineers with expertise in this area, but a close relationship with Uber will give Aurora an easy way to scale up once its technology is ready.

At the same time, Aurora’s swelling headcount of 1,600 souls puts Urmson under a lot of pressure. At this point, most of Aurora’s rivals are majority-owned by huge companies—either car companies like General Motors and Ford or car companies like Alphabet and Amazon. These companies can continue pouring money into self-driving technology for as long as it takes to get it working.

But Aurora doesn’t have a parent company with infinitely deep pockets. So if Aurora can’t bring a product to market soon, it’s going to need to raise additional money on top of the more than $1 billion it has already raised.

“Urmson doesn’t shy away from the possibility the company may need to raise more money,” Bloomberg reports. “And he’s confident it would be able to do so.”

Of course, that’s what any startup CEO is going to say. But the reality is that investors are fickle. If Aurora can’t demonstrate substantial progress toward a viable commercial product, it might not be able to raise another round of funding. That seems to have been the fate of Zoox, a promising startup that was forced to sell to Amazon at a fire-sale price last year.