* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Wednesday’s hearing was a crucial step in holding tech platforms to account
David Segal is the Executive Director of Demand Progress and co-chair of the Freedom from Facebook and Google coalition.
To early modern Silicon Valley the invention and expansion of the internet promised something new - almost transcendent - beyond mere technological advances.
John Perry Barlow captured the mood in his 1996 cyber-utopian manifesto “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” - written two years after Jeff Bezos founded Amazon and four years before Larry Page and Sergey Brin would found Google: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
The proximate inspiration for that salvo against government regulation of the internet was a noble one — antipathy for the just-passed Communications Decency Act, which would have criminalized much online speech.
But the broader ethos - the notion that online activity operates in a dimension that should sit outside of the ambit of earthly rule of law — has persisted and enabled much harm as a handful of companies have come to dominate the landscape.
This notion of internet-exceptionalism has become so pervasive that even lawmakers and regulators have often seemed to believe it.
But the consequence hasn’t been an internet without top-down governance — rather it’s one where a handful of the world’s most valuable companies reign supreme. Mark Zuckerberg once said that “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company”- and now it even has a Supreme Court to decide what content to allow and what to censor. The government censorship Barlow feared was wrong -- and so is control over speech by a company that dominates the social media and messaging markets.
But Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing was an important early advance in a regime change operation — a clear, overdue, claim of authority by Congress.
The dominant platforms’ size and behaviors — their stranglehold on information flows and user data, their undercutting of competitors and businesses that use their platforms while they artificially promote their own services, their propensity to arbitrary seeming censorship even as they fan disinformation and hate — can no longer be ignored.
Our increasing reliance upon them in the context of the pandemic and their imperviousness to consumer pressure further make the case that the government must recognize them as the critical infrastructure they have become and regulate them to ensure they operate in the public’s interest. (Amazon’s profit soared last quarter — as did Facebook’s, despite a consumer boycott that has raised awareness about the platform’s enabling of the spread of hate speech.)
Committee members’ bill of grievances was long, and their questions were sharp. Our country’s foundational antitrust laws prohibit monopolies or attempts to monopolize markets, anti-competitive mergers, and predatory pricing.
Yet questioning by the committee had Facebook’s Zuckerberg admit that he considered Instagram and WhatsApp to be competitors when Facebook acquired them. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos couldn’t rebut concerns that Amazon Echos are sold at a loss - undercutting competitors and making clear how far Amazon will go to gain lucrative beachheads inside of our homes. Google’s Sundar Pichai had no answer to evidence that Google had threatened to delist Yelp from search results if it pushed back against having its data scraped.
Consumers suffer as these companies exploit our data to addict and manipulate us, and as we are offered second-rate services and products from which the platforms profit. Our economy suffers as innovation is strangled out and investors refuse to back services in the expansive “kill-zones” that surround these companies — the areas in which they are almost certain to try to copy, acquire, or kill potential competitors.
Our democracy and civil society suffer as incendiary content is elevated and tears apart our social fabric, and as the ad revenue that once sustained journalism is syphoned off into the coffers of the world’s wealthiest companies.
The internet might still be relatively new, but most of the tactics these companies use to assert and maintain their dominance have been around for generations or even centuries — and so have been the solutions.
The government must look to break up these firms and to compel structural separations: unwinding anti-competitive mergers, banning companies from selling in marketplaces they own and in which they are consequently advantaged over other sellers, preventing other forms of self-dealing and rent-extraction, severing the ties between ad networks and editorial algorithms, and more.
The committee succeeded at making its case that these behemoths are monopolies and have histories of engaging in anti-competitive behaviors. Now it will move to issue a report on its findings and offer recommendations about what is to be done.
Advocates hope that the report is unsparing in deserved criticism and is directive about what must come next: vigorous enforcement where existing law and jurisprudence allow for it, and statutory changes where standing laws are insufficient.
The best cyber-utopians of Barlow’s era envisioned an open, democratic internet where voices could be heard and businesses could thrive. They were mistaken about how we’d secure them, but those ends are still achievable: not by having our government abdicate responsibility over the internet, but through the government’s assertion of itself in the public’s interest.