House lawmakers announced late last week that they plan a sweeping review of Facebook, Google and other technology giants. They want to consider whether the “big tech” companies have become so large and powerful that they stifle competition and harm consumers. This would include consideration of taking up anti-trust actions against them.
The White House has never been very friendly with big tech, particularly Amazon, and now the 2020 Democrat presidential candidates are getting into the act, as well, so this could be a very interesting development. These include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who long has called for breaking up big tech.
The Trump administration has signaled that it might have its sights on Silicon Valley. The White House has taken steps to divide up future anti-trust oversight of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google between the U.S. government’s two antitrust enforcement agencies, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice. This could pave the way for multiple formal probes of all of the various company practices.
“This is very big news, and overdue,” tweeted Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley.
Amazon, Apple and Facebook did not respond to requests for comment and Google declined comment.
The Democratic-controlled House probe was announced Monday by Rep. David Cicilline (Democrat, R.I.), the leader of the House’s top anti-trust subcommittee. At the very least, both Democrats and Republicans are finding themselves in rare agreement on the idea that the tech industry has been too unregulated for too long. So much so that this sentiment set off a sharp sell-off in tech stocks last week.
The Washington Post reported that Congressman Cicilline said the investigation won’t target one specific tech company, but rather focus on the broad belief that the “Internet is broken.” He further pointed out questionable practices at tech giants such as Google, which has faced sanctions in Europe for prioritizing its own services in search returns over those of its rivals, and Facebook, which Cicilline criticized for acquiring competitors or copying their services to ensure its continued dominance in social networking.
Amazon and Apple also could figure into the committee’s early plans. “In a lot of ways, there was a reluctance in the early days of the Internet to interfere,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “It was creating so much value in the lives of people that [some felt] you should get out of the way and allow it to flourish.” Cicilline then went on to add that, “over time, people have recognized there are some real dangers here.”
Cicilline said Democrats would hold hearings and use all investigation powers available to seek documents, including subpoenas and deposition of witnesses. These could include the leaders of Silicon Valley’s largest companies, who might also be asked to testify publicly. Cicilline’s office said that the big tech companies, for all their innovations, had created “escalating crises.” These include eroding Americans’ privacy rights to depriving ad revenue from cash-strapped local news outlets.
That last point is where I come in. Full disclosure: I have reason to be biased against big tech. It’s no secret that they have been allowed to singlehandedly kill newspapers across the country. Being a lifelong newspaper publisher, I would be lying if I tried to claim no instinctive bias. However, it is my job to always try to filter that out and I am trying hard to do so on this issue. That being said, I cannot see how a country based on freedom of expression and a free press could have allowed such a dangerous threat to our personal freedom to grow unabated.
For years, newspapers were often enjoined from merging or buying television or radio stations. It always amazed me that no such controls were ever applied to big tech and their control of information is so much bigger and more pervasive than any legacy media company ever presented.
The genie is out of the bottle now and I am cynical that we can ever get him back in. Possibly, we should at least be watching him! On the other hand, big tech has become one of our country’s biggest economic strengths. China will benefit if we handicap our own technology industry. They certainly do not have the same kind of historical concerns about liberty and privacy that our country was built upon. So it is a very sticky issue, indeed.
If we continue to sell our soul to the devil, even in the interest of making our economy stronger and country safer, are we really better off? That is a true conundrum and is the basis of this week’s Post online reader poll. Are the tech giants too big?
You are likely less biased than me on this subject. I would love to know your thoughts!