With their enormous size, influence and well wishes to do good for humanity, the American tech giants have long escaped the regulatory and legislative scrutiny of Washington. But increased attention on how Russian operatives may have used Facebook, Twitter and Google to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — and a mounting anti-Silicon Valley sentiment — are providing an opening for regulation to finally come through. Most Americans don’t necessarily trust the tech companies, yet they maintain high approval ratings, enormous clout and popularity for their products and services.
Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all faced the House and Senate Intelligence Committees this week, and the EU is on its way to passing legislation that will maintain data protection and privacy in Europe. After many years of avoiding regulation, the tech giants are finding themselves cornered from the left and the right, with some sort of American intervention on tap. The question is just how effective it might be, and how much the tech companies’ lobbyists will water down those efforts.
The argument for accountability
Take the case of Google. Among some of Google’s media rivals who are critical of the way the search giant surfaces news stories, the effort to increase government regulation has been dubbed “Project Goliath.” Yelp’s disdain for the company has grown over the years, and recently led to the filing of a federal antitrust complaint against Google for scraping photographs from Yelp reviews.
The News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 news organizations, in July started advocating for antitrust exemptions in the hopes they might help bump against the Facebook-Google advertising powerhouse (Google is the world’s largest recipient of advertising revenue). The European Union has also fined Google $2.7 billion — the largest antitrust fine the EU has imposed on a single company — for favoring its services over rivals in search results.
And that’s just one company. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — what New York Times’ senior technology correspondent Farhad Manjoo collectively calls the “Frightful Five” — have been waging a battle over an anti-sex trafficking bill. The bill’s promoters want to curb legal protections for sites that host content promoting sex trafficking, but critics say the bill’s language could restrict free speech. Facebook and Twitter, to name two of the frightful, are continuously in headlines over the platforms’ influence on politics both nationally and globally.
And we can’t forget about Amazon, the massive online retailer that now owns brick-and-mortar Whole Foods and recently clocked more than $1 billion in ad revenues in the third quarter.
Tech lobby ‘armies’
The amount of pressure on these companies, and the momentum with which it is finally cascading, makes it likely that some amount of regulation is bound to happen. Ahead of their Congressional hearings, both Facebook and Twitter made changes to their advertising platforms, with more transparency around political ads in the hopes that self-regulation might ward off a harder fist from Washington.
Yet the power and money of these technology companies, and their influence on Capitol Hill, also means regulation will be hard-earned and hard-won. The New York Times’ Cecilia Kang writes:
“Internet companies are deploying some of the largest armies in corporate America to battle on Capitol Hill. House and Senate staffs say lobbyists for the big technology companies have swarmed their offices in recent weeks. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have sharply increased their lobbying spending — a combined $14.2 million in the third quarter, up from $11.9 million a year earlier. Facebook, which has faced the most scrutiny over the election, increased its third-quarter lobbying budget this year by 40 percent, to $2.85 million.”
To say the rivals and critics of these companies don’t stand a chance in circumventing the giants’ power might be an exaggeration, but money talks. The IAB has also come out in defense of these internet companies, arguing that the problems within their industry are best left for them to solve on their own — not with the help of Washington.
Inspiration from the EU?
If U.S. players in this struggle are looking for inspiration for regulation, their European neighbors might be a good source. Compared to Washington, the EU is much more suspicious of the industry’s altruistic proclamations, and is demanding changes to Facebook and Google’s business practices that emphasize privacy for and consent from consumers regarding their data. Given the EU has already launched a taskforce aimed at protecting WhatsApp user data from Facebook, one can imagine the strict clampdown on tech will continue.
Will the U.S. match up? Likely not. But if the media cycle continues the way it has been in the U.S., and the critical voices here stay loud, it’s safe to say tech’s free pass is long gone.