For two years or so, the drumbeat for reining in Big Tech has been getting louder. Critics have suggested solutions from breaking up Facebook and Amazon to regulating social networks and search engines as public utilities. The heads of major tech firms have been hauled before Congress numerous times now. The House Antitrust Subcommittee called for a breakup of the biggest of the Big Tech companies after a lengthy investigation.
The Senate Commerce Committee heard the testimony of top social media company CEOs to discuss the legal provision that provides broad legal immunity around content on their platforms. Most significantly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) in October brought an antitrust lawsuit against Google — the most critical anti-tech antitrust action since the 1998 case against Microsoft.
There is clear legal, regulatory, and political momentum behind taking these actions, and there will be no turning back. The question is: Is this and even more anti-tech antitrust the right tool to address America’s most significant technology problem?
Historic as these companies’ power challenges may be, the long history of antitrust action against Big Tech is not encouraging — particularly if you are hoping for a big company to be broken up outright. In 1956, the Bell System monopoly was left intact after a seven-year legal saga. The antitrust action against IBM lasted 13 years. Outcome? You guessed it: The behemoth remained unbroken. The 1998 fight against Microsoft, in which the government argued that bundling of applications programs into Microsoft’s dominant operating system constituted monopolistic actions, ended three years later with a settlement and the company intact.
Today’s technology industry is more complicated than in the Bell System, IBM, or Microsoft cases. Moreover, while public sentiment had swung against Big Tech after the 2016 presidential elections and especially in the wake of the Social Media giant censorship in the runup to the 2020 election, rampant reliance by Americans on social media communication during the COVID-19 pandemic has put a blinding spotlight on Big Tech companies. Google is just one example, and many feel just the first of many that the DOJ will go after.
Antitrust action against these companies will be long and drawn-out — no matter its conclusion — for several reasons. First, the complaints against the industry are varied, ranging from anti-competitiveness to privacy issues, censorship, publishing and editing social media content, data protection, and vulnerability to misinformation. Second, there are multiple large companies in the crosshairs, with different products and different suggested remedies. Third, numerous agencies are pursuing action, from the DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission to the House initiative led by Democrats to the Senate initiative led by Republicans. Each has a different approach, motivation, and timeline. Fourth, technology itself keeps evolving. Finally, there is a precedent for settling with the tech industry: Previous antitrust actions have resulted in settlements or consent decrees where lawmakers got something from each of the companies in exchange for leaving them intact, which might well encourage companies to drag the fight out as long as possible. Putting these considerations together, it is reasonable to expect a lengthy process that risks frittering away any momentum and ends with a settlement that resolves issues on the margins.
What can be done to make productive use of any momentum for reform in the wake of the Google litigation? First, we need to ask just what tech problem we want to solve — and there are many crying for attention. Lack of competition is one: Consumers have limited choices in search engines, social media platforms, and e-commerce platforms. Several applications or services are owned by platforms, giving the latter an unfair advantage. For instance, Amazon is a marketplace for third-party sellers, but it also competes with those merchants by selling Amazon-branded products. Privacy is another issue: Americans still do not have consistent data protection laws. Beyond that, users on social media are vulnerable to being fed misinformation. They are struggling with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube’s censorship of content in the name of “company policy violations.”
While these problems have severe implications for the competitiveness of markets, functioning of democratic institutions, and preservation of privacy (not to mention First Amendment violations), there is a deeper, more foundational problem that receives much less attention – and more urgently needs to be solved.
It is difficult for most Americans to believe, but the United States’ most serious tech problem is that half of Americans struggle to get online at all reliably! At a moment when nine out of 10 Americans say internet access is essential, according to a Pew Research study, this is a devastating divide. Work, school, health care, socializing, and, often, shopping for essentials have primarily moved online, which means the absence of a reliable digital connection can drastically impact individuals, families, and businesses. If I am among the 162 million Americans without access to a decent internet connection — with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps — or who cannot afford the most expensive broadband access in the world, I have an urgent problem on my hands. My child may be attending school online in a Taco Bell parking lot or huddled under a blanket outside a closed school to piggyback on its wi-fi system because those places happen to have the nearest internet connection. My telehealth visits with my doctor are likely interrupted because of a spotty internet signal. My employment is in jeopardy because I must log onto a jittery Zoom connection that’s unreliable at best. The usual go-to places for many consumers for getting on the internet — community centers, schools, libraries — are closed. Who hasn’t gone to their local Starbucks to drink a cup while using the internet to surf the web or login on to our company’s server? COVID-19 has Starbucks shuttered!
The access gap both mirrors and reinforces inequality in the United States. The picture is far worse for the Black and Hispanic populations. Data analyzed from a recent massive research program suggests that, depending on where one lives, the most basic digital product — reliable access to the internet — has failed the test of inclusive digital access to education, health care, and jobs. To make matters worse, the same parts of the country where schools are woefully unable to go digitally remote — Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Montana, and Arkansas, for example — overlap with the parts of the country where schools should be run remotely because of failing public health guidelines. These states also suffer from limited access to telehealth, employment opportunities, and online government services.
Lawmakers and regulators have an unusual opportunity right now: They can use their leverage over the most innovative and best-performing technology companies to solve the problem of internet access. They can do this now before any other issues get discussed en route to a full settlement in this Google antitrust litigation and any future actions by the DOJ. Lawmakers can press for the four Big Tech players that are their primary targets — Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple — to collaborate on identifying the broadband deserts in the U.S. and designing a plan to collectively fill the gaps in a way that is affordable to users and gives them no advantage as gatekeepers. Agreeing to be a part of this solution then permits the companies to remain at the table for further negotiation. This will create the right incentives for companies to participate and take action.
These companies are already in the business of providing internet access. Facebook offers free access to a limited version of the internet in more than 60 countries through its Facebook Connectivity initiative, with solutions ranging from low-cost wireless connections in dense urban areas to high-altitude platforms for connecting remote sites to free basic internet access in developing regions. Alphabet has a fiber deployment project, and Loon, an Alphabet unit, uses balloons, unmanned aircraft, and high altitude platform stations. Amazon has plans for deploying more than 3,000 low earth orbit satellites to offer broadband service everywhere, and Apple has a similar project in the works.
These companies have the resources, as the pandemic has already driven historical profits even higher, and would be interested in cooperating if there is an expectation that it might help reach an eventual settlement on the other issues on the table. It could be in the self-interest of these companies, as expanding access also expands their consumer base. After all, these companies have already invested in inexpensive internet access projects for a reason. It must be because they expect to see commercial value from expanding the market.
The 900-pound gorilla in the Big Tech room right now is Censorship. If censorship at your personal or business social media account has not yet impacted you, you’re probably not too concerned. But when it happens, I promise you the feeling is one of total violation. We live in the greatest and freest nation in World history. We have the First Amendment guarantee that loosely stated, promises that anyone can say anything to anybody at any time: Free Speech! The Free Speech gorilla is dominating our attention while we are losing sight of the big picture.
I lived through the AT&T breakup. I also remember the reason the antitrust action was taken to stop AT&T’s dominance in the telecommunications business, including local and long-distance. What I remember is since that happened, customer service in every segment of telecommunications is impossible! There were other negatives that came with all of that. But what has been the result of that breakup? AT&T bought-up all the Bell companies, and now we have AT&T again! There’s no “Southern Bell, Southcentral Bell, Pacific Bell, Northwestern Bell,” etc. We have AT&T!
I don’t think we ought to sit here and suffer through another monstrous, costly, and decades-long break-up of just one of the Big Tech companies. There needs to be a thorough and realistic plan developed in a government/private endeavor in which all of the Big Tech companies work with a group of government specialists (to be named) to, instead of more antitrust litigation, develop a plan to answer the existing problems and any new ones as they appear.
The first “next” step that might show Big Tech how serious are these issues might be for the U.S. House and Senate to unanimously pass a bill to eliminate the indemnification for all of these companies they currently possess under Section 230 of the FCC Decency law. President Trump will sign it immediately.
How do you make a deal? All parties meet and discuss the concerns of any deal proposal with everyone at the table. Identify the differences, concerns, and expected and desired outcomes. THEN craft a solution. “This is too big a monster to try with one solution to repair everything.” That could likely be true. So create dozens of solutions!
Washington has never been successful at quickly and crafting and implementing plans to make things better. (That’s one thing that Donald Trump showed the nation works almost every time!) This issue with Big Tech is a really BIG issue that must be resolved. There are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. But there are also millions of Americans who need the ability to access and use Big Tech and all they have to offer without feeling they are taken advantage of. Let’s be honest: Big Tech definitely takes advantage of Americans in both government and private sectors.
It must STOP!