Big Tech has become immense. Congress has to actually hold them accountable, not hold empty hearings and resort to half measures.
Mark Zuckerberg’s “accountability moment” has come and gone, and little has changed. Facebook promises to be more responsible with its trove of information about you — we’ll see what that means. And its users have stayed with the service — how could they not, given its monopoly power? The stock market has blithely restored all the loss it imposed on Facebook when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.
Zuckerberg’s Teflon trestimony shows that, rather than solve the problem, the Congress has barely begun to scratch it. For example, there are three different issues in the news now that demonstrate how pervasive the “Big Tech” problem is and how much it demands new and focused attention.
The first of the issues tied up with Big Tech is the perennial tech policy hobbyhorse — net neutrality. Big Tech is actively pushing a deceptive “Congressional Review Act” campaign that would impose neutrality obligations on Internet Service Providers while completely exempting discriminatory search and social media operations. That’s a big omission; Google’s elevation of its own shopping results over local competitors like Yelp led to a $2.7 billion anti-competition fine in Europe. But, if they get their way, not here.
What would we think if your ISP, like Facebook, was repeatedly caught allowing advertisers to redline users by religion and race, or like Google, serving up higher paying job opportunities to male applicants? But Big Tech’s narrow version of neutrality — one that exempts their operations — would enshrine their discriminatory practices, and at a time when 55% of Americans are worried that the government will do too little to curb these monopolists.
The second issue is anti-trust enforcement. President Trump, when discussing the proposed AT&T Time Warner merger, gave us a standard for considering it — “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” But if that’s the standard, how can Google or Facebook be immune to anti-trust scrutiny?
The Tech Giants have used the information they collect about you from search, networking, or shopping to extend their reach into new functions like dating, music streaming, photo sharing, navigation, mobile phones, home security, personal assistants, driverless cars and every other corner of our lives. As a result, they have become immense — by one study, Google, Amazon and Facebook alone captured virtually all of the Fortune 500 revenue growth in the five years from 2012 to 2016 while the rest, taken together, remained essentially flat.
Standard Oil, AT&T, and other monopolies of the past sold a product. But these new monopolists have an even greater chokehold on the economy — they are not really “companies,” but “networks” that connect providers and consumers of goods, services, information and everything else. That’s why no one abandoned Facebook — because a second such “network” would be an unproductive waste of time for all involved.
So, Big Tech poses a new kind of monopoly, and therefore an unprecedented threat, to our economy.
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And the third issue takes the national problems of managing big tech and goes global. In the ongoing NAFTA renegotiations, the Website Giants are seeking broad “safe harbor” immunities to shield them from liability for crimes and other abuses on their networks.
These “safe harbors” encourage Big Tech to turn a blind eye to abuse, harassment, terrorist organizing, illegal opioids and digital piracy. In fact, these abuses can be profitable for the websites. For example, music and video creators that want to license their content to YouTube have to compete with pirated copies of their own work. As a result, one estimate is that content creators get one-seventh of what they’d ordinarily get when dealing with YouTube. Why would Big Tech spend money to fight that?
Congress is actively reviewing and revising these protections for purposes of U.S. law. It has restored liability for platforms that knowingly support sex trafficking, and is considering changes to stop music and film piracy rather than profit from it.
Faced with increased Congressional scrutiny, Big Tech is using the NAFTA talks to force the most extreme and outdated immunities into a new NAFTA deal. The U.S. Trade Representative must not allow this end-run of Congress’s power to set policy for the net.
Congress must not let Big Tech’s “accountability moment” pass with only half measures and empty hearings to show for it. We need strong legal reforms to protect privacy and real non-discrimination principles that apply to everyone — the tech platforms as well as broadband providers. Flaws in U.S. law that have tilted the playing field in Big Tech’s favor must not be exported into NAFTA. And above all, the Justice Department and FTC must get in the game and seek real remedies for these competition abuses — including breaking up these monopolies — before the great potential of the Internet is sacrificed.
Ev Ehrlich is president of ESC Co., an economics consulting firm, and was undersecretary of commerce from 1993 to 1997.
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