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It is stunning that members of Congress mostly agree that four of America’s most successful companies are bullies that abuse their power to stay on top.
That was my thought reading the conclusions of a 16-month congressional investigation into whether Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple broke the law to squash competition. The assessment was, essentially, yup.
The Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have major points of disagreement, and only Democrats signed this report. But while the two parties are divided — possibly irreconcilably so — over how to fix the problem, they appear to mostly agree that those four companies should not be allowed to continue as is.
It’s not unusual to hate on large companies; it was true of big banks and oil companies at the peak of their power. But still. This feels like a moment that reflects real discomfort and derision for big technology companies, and I’m not sure there is a way to go back to the shinier, happier days.
On to some of my assessments of the report. (You can read all 449 pages for yourself here.)
It is so relentlessly negative. Where is the nuance? The House report was unequivocal that Google and Facebook are monopolies, and that elements of Amazon and Apple are as well. (My colleagues have more specifics.)
One thing that struck me is that the House Democrats saw almost everything that the big tech companies do as evidence of illegal anti-competitive activity. It felt overdone. And there was little recognition of what the U.S. economy and people have gained from the success of these tech giants.
A small example: House members called out Google for preventing other companies that make digital maps from collecting data from people’s Android phones. In the report’s telling, Google’s data advantage let Google Maps chart the planet, but no rival mapping companies had a shot.
That is true but also … Google’s action helped secure people’s digital privacy. Wouldn’t it be bad if every creepy app had access to our location when we roamed around the world?
The proposed fixes are BIG IDEAS: The Democrats who signed this report are proposing nothing short of a rewriting of laws that govern corporations, and a reimagining of how lots of familiar businesses work.
The five-alarm-fire proposed fix from the Democrats is to force Big Tech to effectively break up — if not literally than at least by not letting one part of a company promote another, giving it an edge over competitors. Don’t let Amazon sell its own products on its marketplace, for example, and don’t permit Google to require Samsung to install Google apps on Android phones.
There’s more. The House report suggests rewriting laws so people who believe a big tech company is unfairly crushing their business — merchants who sell products on Amazon, for example — can sue in court to force legal accountability for anticompetitive actions. (Right now, the tech superpowers force most complaints into arbitration, which doesn’t impose punishments.)
Another one: Change the legal standard so companies like Facebook can’t buy other companies without proving that doing so will enhance competition and help consumers.
These and other proposed changes are huge. I don’t know if these ideas are all good — or if they will happen. And I am concerned that there is no recognition of the downsides to these fixes. But I want to give the lawmakers credit for not being afraid to think big.
The competition watchdogs need more teeth: House members said the government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission that are responsible for enforcing antitrust laws repeatedly failed. They too often left unchallenged Big Tech’s pattern of getting more powerful by acquiring competitors, and they did not crack down when these companies broke the law and their word. To this I say, YES.
The House members recommended more funding for the F.T.C. and other antitrust enforcement agencies, requiring them to keep better data on industry consolidation and generally suggesting they stop being afraid to go after the biggest fish.
I welcome more muscular enforcement of existing laws. I wonder how many transgressions by these companies in recent years — including Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal — could have been avoided if government watchdogs kept Big Tech on a shorter leash. (Also, hello, the F.T.C. may want to look at Facebook integrating its apps.)
House members did their homework. Also they are FURIOUS: Let this House investigation forever end the idea that members of Congress are too clueless to effectively oversee big tech companies. Even if you disagree with their conclusions, these people showed that they get how these companies operate.
Also, they are so mad, you guys. Laced through the report is contempt at what House members saw as attempts by Big Tech to evade or sneer at lawmakers. One example: House members said they asked Amazon for a list of the company’s top 10 competitors. Amazon gave them 1,700 names, including Eero (a Wi-Fi equipment company Amazon owns), a discount surgical supply distributor and a beef jerky company.
No one likes to be poked and prodded by Congress, but the members were right that these four companies are arrogant, and that blinds them to justified criticism. With this report, the tech giants have reasons to feel the House overreached. I hope this time they don’t miss that there is also legitimate pushback.
The Republicans were divided: In a separate draft report by Republican members, they agreed that stronger antitrust enforcement was needed for Big Tech, but said that some of the Democrats’ proposed legal changes — including eliminating arbitration clauses — were too drastic. They also criticized their colleagues for not tackling perceived conservative bias by big tech companies. Others have refused to endorse any of the Democrats’ findings, my colleagues reported.
I’m still struck by how much agreement there was on the problem. That suggests that, if Congress actually does something — not a given — business as usual will be impossible for Big Tech.
Before we go …
Facebook isn’t thinking small, either: The company took sweeping action against the baseless QAnon conspiracy by saying it would delete anything that identified with QAnon from Facebook and Instagram, my colleague Sheera Frenkel reported.
People concerned about the real-world harm from QAnon said Facebook was too tame in its prior crackdowns and cheered this approach. But one problem with banning the movement is that its ideas have seeped into more mainstream ideas. Plus, believers have been adept at skirting Facebook’s rules.
Weren’t we just talking about the overreach of Big Tech? Would you like to buy a Chromecast, the streaming TV device that recommends entertainment based on what Google knows about you? My colleague Brian X. Chen found the gadget complicated, creepy and mostly pointless because the Chromecast viewing recommendations were hit or miss.
Dating in a pandemic is weird: In the last few months, people using online dating apps have gotten less picky and more willing to fast track new relationships so they aren’t alone in anxious times, wrote my colleagues Jonah Engel Bromwich and Sandra E. Garcia. Special mention to the professional dating app ghostwriter (!!!) and the woman who deleted all her dating apps because “it sucks to deal with the pandemic and a bad relationship.”
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