What goes up must come down. And, if the truism holds, then 2022 will be a tipping point for Big Tech.
The world’s largest platform technology companies – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet and Meta Platforms – have had an incredibly profitable few years, adding $2.5 billion in market capitalization in 2021 alone.
Their stock price has been buoyed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has helped all things digital. So far, they’ve also been insulated from everything from the US-China economic dispute to growing global calls for antitrust regulation and the limits of surveillance capitalism.
But Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations about how this company – rebranded as Meta Platforms – knowingly used algorithms to target advertising at vulnerable children and profit from misinformation and hateful content, have become a focal point in the regulatory conversation.
As venture capitalist and Big Tech critic Roger McNamee puts it, “Frances changed everything. She made people understand that it all depends on the culture and the business model [of Big Tech]. Nothing is the product of an accident.
The result has been that the Federal Trade Commission is once again advancing its antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, and in the United States there is a set of tech-focused antitrust bills that have already passed with bipartisan House support. representatives. Judiciary Committee.
Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island who also led the House report on competition issues in platform technology in 2020, is overseeing its progress. This is only a first step – bills must be approved by both the House and the Senate.
Still, there is growing bipartisan traction around some of the proposed measures, like the US Innovation and Choice Act, introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar (a Democrat from Minnesota) and Chuck Grassley (a Republican from Iowa ). It complements a similar bill introduced in the House by Cicilline.
The legislation would prohibit dominant platforms from discriminating against companies that rely on their services. This goes to the heart of how many big tech platforms – like Amazon, for example – create marketplaces, but also sell and prefer their own products within them in ways that would be illegal in other industries. such as financial services.
In addition, increased efforts are being made to protect children’s rights online. Facebook documents leaked by Haugen contained damning revelations about how the company knew the content it pushed teens to could lead to depression, eating disorders and even self-harm.
This likely means the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, pioneered by Democratic Senator Ed Markey, could pass both the House and Senate in 2022. The bill aims to limit the ability platform companies to collect data from children under the age of 15. It also gives parents and children more legal resources regarding online harms perpetrated by platforms.
Does that mean we’re likely to see the infamous CDA 230 loophole closed that allows platforms to free themselves from anything users say or do online? Probably not.
Many on both sides of the political aisle want to reform this hotly contested section of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It states that online platforms should not be construed as publishers of material that users post there.
The difficulty is that Democrats and Republicans are concerned about different types of content. While there are pressures for both sides to be tough on technology ahead of November’s midterm elections, the lack of an easy solution to the question of precisely what hardware should be restricted will make it difficult to ” Yes “.
That said, the Joe Biden administration is likely to take concerted legal action on antitrust issues before the midterms, at which time Democrats may well lose control of Congress. It would reduce their ability to pass any meaningful legislation or do much to rein in Big Tech over the next few years.
The president now has a full list of appointees — from FTC chief Lina Khan to Justice Department antitrust chief Jonathan Kantor and White House adviser Tim Wu — who want to take a more aggressive approach to policy. of competition.
Indeed, the president himself announced 72 discrete measures to achieve this in an executive order last July, which proclaimed that the era of consumer prices as the sole measure of competition policy is over.
It was an important line in the sand. This pushed the United States towards a broader definition of competition, in which not only prices, but also consumer choice, market access, stakeholder welfare and citizen rights could figure. among the issues considered by regulators.
On that note, not only has the FTC filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, but it’s also suing Google — as well as the DoJ, which has cases against both platforms. The FTC would also investigate Amazon, while the DoJ would examine Apple.
There is also a nascent transatlantic effort to find common ground on Big Tech regulation. EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager spent time last year in Washington speaking to the Biden team, including Khan at the FTC.
Meanwhile, US competition activists, including Barry Lynn, founder of the Open Markets Institute think tank, are pushing for the EU to adopt some of “Brandeis’ new legal thinking” on digital markets. It avoids price as a key indicator of competition, which would bring Europe closer to the United States.
Then, in April, the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, which was created last year to help coordinate policy between the two regions, will meet in Paris. He will seek to advance a new transatlantic regulatory framework for digital commerce, discuss the rules of surveillance capitalism and coordinate new regional supply chains as China closes off its own tech ecosystem.
While there’s no overarching initiative to “dismantle” Big Tech in 2022, we’re likely to see plenty of new proposals — and perhaps even firm rules for the digital path ahead.