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In a long, grueling day of questioning before a House Judiciary subcommittee that included – of course – technical difficulties, the CEOs of Big Tech were subject to a barrage of questions from lawmakers. Legislators from both parties argued that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have engaged in practices that violate (or should violate) antitrust law.
The criticisms of Big Tech have been coming for some time. Last June, government agencies including the Federal Trade Commission began investigating Google, Amazon, and others for antitrust violations. For much of the hearing, lawmakers took the opportunity to highlight their findings. Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline said the committee will issue a report in a month on the results of its investigation. The report may ultimately provide the foundation for new legislation or regulations on Big Tech.
Lawmakers accused these companies of leveraging their uniquely powerful platforms to create choke points that hurt competition. In the hearing, Democratic lawmakers accused the four companies, worth something close to $5 trillion combined, of acquiring competitors unlawfully (Facebook), using rival companies' data (Amazon), and in the case of Google, steering users toward results that benefit their own products. Apple, meanwhile, had to answer questions about stifling competition in its App Store.
Existing antitrust laws primarily focus on the impact on consumers. Because Big Tech is much different than Big Steel and other monopolies targeted in centuries-old rules, some have argued new or updated legislation is needed to break up outsized tech companies. Not everyone on the committee expressed this view, however.
Republicans on the committee focused their attention on anti-conservative bias online. According to Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, both Google and Facebook censor conservative voices. Democrats, too, have said social media companies like Facebook have not done enough to prevent false political claims. While a separate issue from whether Big Tech has violated antitrust laws, its continued focus in the hearing suggests that any potential legislation addressing the size of Big Tech may include attempts to revise censorship and liability laws for online platforms.
While there appears to be some momentum to update antitrust laws, it is by no means clear Congress is able to tackle the issue anytime soon. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, argued that breaking up Big Tech would hurt America's ability to compete with Chinese tech companies. This argument could find a receptive ear in Congress. What's more, some technology, such as AI, can be done best using massive amounts of data. One example is Facebook's advanced facial recognition software, which came about primarily due to Facebook's access to billions of photographs. Whether facial recognition technology is a good thing is a debate for another time.
The hearing highlighted another issue with regulation, as well. A monopoly on steel looks, organizationally, much like a monopoly on oil. However, for tech, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook do vastly different things in different ways. Any legislation would have to account for these differences to be effective.
Big Tech gets criticized by both parties and the public. Whether this criticism will translate into any changes in the law is still anyone's guess. Whatever the path forward, however, there is sure to be intense disagreement.