Liberals and conservatives have different flashpoints when it comes to big tech. But they all trace back to the same problem.
Conservatives believe their viewpoints are being suppressed by big tech platforms and are taking steps to highlight the problem in this new Congress. Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), the new Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, recently wrote to five tech companies demanding information about whether they colluded with the Biden Administration to “suppress freedom of speech online,” in particular conservative viewpoints. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the new Ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court as part of the landmark Gonzalez vs Google case to be heard next month. He claims that “platforms have not been shy about restricting access and removing content based on the politics of the speaker, an issue that has persistently arisen as Big Tech companies censor and remove content espousing conservative political views.”
In response, some have argued that tech platforms are simply trying to suppress offensive speech and disinformation. In fact, Twitter’s research showed that its algorithm actually favors conservative views. Google and Facebook and their proxies have made similar assertions that no such discrimination is happening. However, without any independent evidence, we’re left in a position where the platforms are grading their own homework and we’re all asked to simply trust them. Unlike the mass media, which thrives in the clear light of public scrutiny, it is impossible to understand the full impact of what goes on in the platforms’ black boxes.
Whether you agree with Rep. Jordan and Senator Cruz or not, conservatives’ concerns clearly underscore a related problem in our current marketplace: a lack of competition. Big tech controls untold data and influence. To date, they pretty much write their own rules with copious support from cooperative industry groups. The IAB has taken on a heavy load by carrying Google and Facebook’s water in its efforts to defend “commercial surveillance.” CEO David Cohen uses inflammatory and polarizing rhetoric intended to protect the interests of big tech under the guise of defending the interests of “entrepreneurs and small businesses.” In fact, the one thing guaranteed to protect the needs of smaller players is an end to monopolistic practices.
And, while he defends the practices of IAB members Google and Facebook, Cohen selectively calls out Apple for its ” cynicism and hypocrisy.” It seems more than coincidental that Apple is not a member of the IAB. Apple is, in fact, an organization with a clear track record of participating deeply at open multi-stakeholder groups like the W3C to develop privacy solutions.
Dominant industry platforms preference their own products and services to the detriment of any nascent competitors. We’ve already seen clear evidence of collusion emerge in the government lawsuits against Google and Facebook in which these two companies shut out their competitors in the advertising market. Undoubtedly, we’re likely to see more revelations of this nature are as the Department of Justice filed suit against Google this week alleging the company unfairly manipulated the advertising marketplace for its own advantage.
Apple has been accused of leveraging its dominant App Store to develop and promote its own apps to the detriment of competitors. Amazon is under the spotlight for developing its own products to compete with those in its ecommerce marketplace – by employing analytics derived from that same industry-dominating marketplace. The list of anticompetitive complaints against a handful of powerful players grows longer by the day.
While revelations continue to emerge as these cases make their way through the system, we can’t help but wonder what other harmful activities are still hidden? Without competition, these companies can – and do – operate as monopolies with all the trademark bullying and unchecked arrogant, anticompetitive, even illegal behavior. Who’s to say these companies haven’t also used their dominant market position to suppress (or otherwise influence the proliferation of) political viewpoints?
Cultivating healthy competition in the digital marketplace would go a long way toward building transparency and accountability for the big tech platforms. If Instagram were still a separate company, imagine how differently it would have reacted after the endless scandals for Facebook starting with Cambridge Analytica? Imagine how the market would have reacted to news of Jedi Blue if there was a viable alternative to Google’s ad serving tools? What would pricing and user experience look like if the places we purchased goods weren’t tilting the scale hard in their own favor?
Instead, in today’s world of monopolies, we see a blizzard of PR and legal subterfuge followed by self-serving half-measures.
Policy lags but has legs
Europe passed the Digital Markets Act last year with enforcement expected to begin later this year. If past is prologue, true results will take a few years. Just look at the most recent groundbreaking cases from GDPR. Facebook was deemed to be illegally processing data at the end of 2022, though GDPR became law in 2018. Congress tried to pass bills last year to address the competition problem but frustratingly came up short. Now, Republicans enjoy the majority in the House. Yes, they are worried about the behavior of the big platforms but have voiced concerns about overly empowering federal regulators.
There are legitimate debates to be had about how best to inject transparency and restore healthy competition. But make no mistake, the marketplace for tech is broken and policymakers need to act. Without a policy solution, monopolists will continue to spin PR and make small performative adjustments while they shape the marketplace in their favor and to the detriment of everyone else: small and medium sized companies – and, yes, maybe even divergent political views.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore