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Elizabeth Warren says Apple, Amazon and Google are trying to ‘lock out’ the competition

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Google, Apple and Amazon aren't just giant tech companies. They're giant tech companies that use their size to "snuff out competition."

That's the charge levied by Elizabeth Warren in a speech the Massachusetts senator delivered today in Washington.

Warren singled out three of tech's biggest players in a speech about the perils of "consolidation and concentration" throughout the economy. It comes the day after Hillary Clinton, Warren's recent stage-mate, laid out a "technology agenda" that seemed design to please Silicon Valley.

Warren had different beefs with Google, Apple and Amazon, but the common thread was that she accused each one of using its powerful platforms to "lock out smaller guys and newer guys," including some that compete with Google, Apple and Amazon.

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Google, she said, uses "its dominant search engine to harm rivals of its Google Plus user review feature;" Apple "has placed conditions on its rivals that make it difficult for them to offer competitive streaming services" that compete with Apple Music; and Amazon "uses its position as the dominant bookseller to steer consumers to books published by Amazon to the detriment of other publishers."

"Google, Apple and Amazon have created disruptive technologies that changed the world, and ... they deserve to be highly profitable and successful," Warren said. "But the opportunity to compete must remain open for new entrants and smaller competitors that want their chance to change the world again."

Not included in Warren's list: Facebook, which certainly has platform power that freaks out everyone in the media business.

Then again, Facebook doesn't have a home-grown product that competes with the product the media business creates — unless you want to argue that Facebook's main product is the user-generated content it is now favoring over the stuff publishers make.

Reps for Google, Apple and Amazon all declined to comment.

But Spotify, which has complained about the fee Apple charges music services — and other services — that sign up subscribers using its iOS platform, was happy to comment. Here's Jonathan Prince, who runs communications and public policy for the streaming music company:

"Apple has long used its control of iOS to squash competition in music, driving up the prices of its competitors, inappropriately forbidding us from telling our customers about lower prices, and giving itself unfair advantages across its platform through everything from the lock screen to Siri. You know there's something wrong when Apple makes more off a Spotify subscription than it does off an Apple Music subscription and doesn't share any of that with the music industry. They want to have their cake and eat everyone else's too."

Warren's speech didn't only go after the tech sector. Other targets included Walmart and Comcast, which owns a minority stake in Vox Media, which owns this site.

Her main critique was directed at politicians and regulators she thinks have abandoned their responsibility to "restore and defend competition." Warren doesn't expect those same politicians to pass new legislation to fix any of this, but she does want them to "enforce our laws in the way Congress originally intended them to be enforced."

This isn't the first time Warren has gone after some of Silicon Valley's standard-bearers. Earlier this spring she laid into Uber and other "gig economy" companies; Clinton made her own critique of that sector last year.

I can't imagine that Warren's newest words will reverberate in techland. It would be nice if they did.

The predominant mindset when it comes to competition in Silicon Valley is that the best tech company wins until it doesn't, and is replaced by a competitor that does it better. When we do talk about competition, it tends to be about fights between giants, usually about little stuff. Hey! Why won't Amazon sell Apple TVs?

And when it comes to platforms, we usually hear that companies that have built enormously powerful platforms get to operate them any way they see fit — and that the people who built them are going to make the best decisions about this stuff, anyway.

But these things are enormously powerful platforms, built on the same internet that Silicon Valley says should be treated as a public utility. If the platform owners don't want to end up with Washington regulating, say, the size of their app store fees, they ought to work hard to keep themselves in check.

By Peter Kafka, Recode.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.