On Wednesday, four big tech CEOs — Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — will come face to face with Congress, in a hearing held by Antitrust Subcommittee Chair David Cicilline. The hearing is one result of a yearlong investigation by Cicilline’s subcommittee into whether these four companies regulate more of the U.S. economy than our public officials do.
For some, this hearing seemed like a series of technical questions about market power, and for others, a mere congressional spectacle. But the stakes are high. This hearing was part of the only major investigation into corporate power by any Congress in recent memory. Its results may determine whether Congress over the next few years develops the confidence to break up and regulate these giants, will in many ways determine whether America remains a self-governing democracy.
Until recently, the harms of these giants were hidden from the public because they offer free or low-cost services to consumers. But low prices mask a deep threat to our society, starting with a surveillance architecture that has concentrated ad revenue and threatens free expression itself. Two-thirds of American counties have no daily newspaper, largely because Google and Facebook have diverted revenue from the free press to themselves. In addition, these companies propagate misinformation, harm mental health, and promote racial discrimination, with virtually no accountability. Even a giant ad boycott by a host of corporations opposed to Facebook’s hate speech policies drew a response fit for a monopolist: “My guess is that all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough,” said Zuckerberg. That’s power.
Amazon, meanwhile, has built powers that rival, or exceed, those of the government. In 2004, Jeff Bezos privately told Amazon executives that he wanted to “draw a moat” around the company’s customers. The analogy was clear: Amazon would control access to those customers, becoming the only bridge for hundreds and thousands of other companies to reach those consumers.
And 16 years later, it’s clear that Bezos fulfilled his goal to transform his company into the bridge through which American e-commerce flows, reaping profits from the tolls the Seattle-based monster imposes on the steady stream of goods. As of 2020, there are more than 118 million Prime subscribers domestically, versus 129 million total households in America. Bezos was so successful in digging his moat that it now surrounds virtually the entire nation, and the rules it sets for that commerce affects much of the rest of the consumer economy. As Harvard Law professor Rebecca Tushnet has noted, “Amazon, with its size, now substitutes for government in a lot of what it does.”
The harms here are real. America has lost over a hundred thousand local, independent retail businesses, a drop of 40 percent from 2000 to 2015, largely due to Amazon. And this is not good for consumers; Amazon allows thousands of counterfeit and unsafe products on its marketplace because it doesn’t have the same liability for products that normal retailers do. Because of its surveillance over its Marketplace, Amazon copies the design of successful products, which destroys the incentive to innovate.
In other words, these four corporations command bridges over which our news, entertainment, goods, and services now flow, serving as the digital infrastructure of swaths of the American economy. These dominant platforms, whose market capitalization surpasses the gross domestic product of many large nations, function as the quasi-governmental gatekeepers of America’s commerce and communications. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg once made this point explicitly: “In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.”
Monopolies are Un-American
Technology corporations like to say they are the arbiters of the future, but to understand why this hearing mattered, it’s important to revisit a long-lost history of American battles against monopoly power. Most Americans, including our leaders, do not know that monopolies, in particular companies that draw a moat between the people and the marketplace, have always, until the past few decades, been seen as deeply un-American.
Because Americans and their leaders understood the importance of access to the marketplace, they naturally recognized that democracy requires eliminating concentrations of power. Congress broke up railroads, banks, aerospace companies, and prevented automobile and telephone giants from invading into adjacent markets. Congress used to regulate our markets, and in doing so, Congress governed.
Citizens Became Consumers
So what happened? How is it that four corporations can now command such heights? In the 1970s, American elites adopted a new philosophy of governance. Americans were no longer citizens but consumers, and monopolies could serve consumers well. And let the expert economists make decisions about markets, not the commoner rabble.
By 1998, this philosophy was so entrenched in our governing elites that Larry Summers linked American global leadership and power not to ideals of freedom, but to corporate dominance, noting that “whether it is AIG in insurance, McDonald’s in fast food, Walmart in retailing, Microsoft in software, Harvard University in education, CNN in television news—the leading enterprises are American.” Similarly, Senator Dianne Feinstein, in 2010, upon voting against a measure to break up large banks, said to a colleague, “This is still America, right?” We had forgotten so much about who we are that American leaders did not recognize in their own tradition the importance of public control over markets.
Buried in this confused anti-American ideology favorable to monopoly, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations did not use merger laws, and Congress did not regulate data or online commerce, so Silicon Valley grew to gargantuan proportions. In other words, Jeff Bezos and his fellow CEOs aren’t powerful sovereign-like entities because they are brilliant as their boosters would say, or evil, as some of their opponents would offer. They are governing us because we the people have refused to do so through our public institutions. These men have merely stepped into the breach, filling up the void.
There are many complicated technical questions about how to get rid of Amazon’s moat, or that of the other three tech behemoths. But the political problem is simpler. To restore democracy, or rule by the many, in the commercial sphere, means to reassert the role of elected representatives. As Chair Cicilline and the members of the Antitrust Subcommittee demand answers from the CEOs of these tech giants, they are beginning to fill the gap that our last several generations of leaders have left.
If they fill it well, they will be reasserting a tradition that is 400 years old, and yet, surprisingly modern.
What Can We Rely On Will Happen?
It’s plain and simple that if somehow these and other tech giants are not reigned in when it comes to their almost unilateral control of so much of the lives of Americans, they will NOT just tread water: these companies did not become MASSIVE companies by just sitting around counting their pennies. They have continued to grow. And their growth results directly from innovation, creativity, finding and using new opportunities that all are simply puzzle pieces that are put in place at the right time to maximize companies’ financial growth, dominance, and control of more and more of our lives.
Have we as citizens allowed these giants to grow too big, become too dominant, while our elected officials have in large been rocked to sleep by diversion and, God forbid, huge dollars in campaign contributions that have bought their silence? What were the anti-trust laws crafted for? What’s different about the circumstances that led to the breakup of AT&T and today’s monopolies by these tech giants? Why haven’t our guard dogs in Washington looked-in with suspicion of the tactics being used so blatantly to take control of more and more of the American economy in multiple aspects?
Don’t believe for one minute that that House Committee hearing in D.C. on Thursday is a precursor to anything substantive from Congress to slow the swallowing of more American rights and opportunities. Be honest: if Congress really had your welfare in mind, none of this would have ever happened!
I remember a period not so long ago in which dozens of members of Congress from both parties united and examined big companies’ operations frequently to guarantee Americans that the monopolization of sectors of our economy were not being snatched away by anyone. CEO’s of America’s companies no longer fear Big Brother looking over their shoulders to make certain Americans were not taken advantage of. They have been lulled into a state of apathy.
No one can fault these are any other companies from seizing opportunities to grow, expand, and gobble up market shares for their stockholders. Remember this sage statement made long ago: “It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” And Big Tech operates today in everything they do. Seldom are they chastised for their actions. Why? Somebody — a lot of somebodies — make lots of money when this happens.
Money is NOT everything. But money DOES MAKE everything else seem a little better! And the more, the merrier.
Finally this: Americans must understand that if Big Tech is not stopped, Big Tech will NOT stop!