A N A L Y S I S – U S P O L I T I C S
Tafhim Radita Ali
With a new president being sworn in, and the old one leaving divide and fear in his wake, the US’s political landscape has never been more polarised. However, there is one thing that both parties can unite against – Big Tech. The case against it started under the Trump administration, and will only be double-downed upon under Biden.
The war on Big Tech is nothing new. Starting in 2020, the antitrust cases filed against the five major tech companies caused a commotion – the hearings dragging out for months and raising the question: is Big Tech too big?
What is Big Tech?
Big Tech is used to describe the five largest tech companies in the US: Google (or, rather, their parent company Alphabet), Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft (being the most diversified Tech Giant). These five companies alone make up around 50% of the tech industry. In 2019, these giants made almost $900bn, which should come as no surprise to anyone considering how many new phones and products came out each year from companies like Apple alone.
These huge companies only continue to grow by the day. Not only do they hold a monopoly over the tech industry, easily quelling competition, but they continue to accumulate power in a way no one a few decades ago could have expected: through our data.
Data is a novel commodity, but it might be the most important resource for online businesses. 90% of the data in the world today was created in just the last two years. This data allows for companies like Google to market exactly to our needs, based on our search history, what we click on, and who we are.
These giant tech companies don’t only use this data to market products, but for conspiracy theories, fake news, and misinformation as well, things which gradually lead to events like the Capitol Attack on 6 January.
The point is, these tech companies have gotten away with a lot of things for a very long time, and only recently has the government started holding them accountable.
The Antitrust Hearings and Section 230
As stated before, to hold these companies accountable for their wrong-doings, the government brought them to court after filing cases against them for breaking antitrust laws. These laws are put in place to protect both consumers and companies by ensuring that companies don’t engage in aggressive business strategies and encouraging fair competition. It prevents monopolies from growing and buyers from falling into traps.
It’s easy to see why the case was filed, and the current investigations against the companies are as follows:
- Google’s power in online advertising and being the primary search engine pre-installed in most phones (thus crushing any other minor search engine)
- Facebook’s position in the social media market, and then apps like Instagram and WhatsApp, thus eliminating competition
- Amazon being the primary online market, discriminating against certain buyers and sellers and also not allowing for much competition.
- Apple is under investigation due to Apple Store policies.
These cases were brought up and directed at the CEOs of these companies during the antitrust hearings. What will come of it remains to be seen, as it is a long-winded process. Many are calling for these companies to be broken up in hopes that this will allow for more competition and innovation. Others are asking for stricter regulations so that private data can be protected.
However, more concerning to the government is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Made in 1996, this law states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In essence, this means that companies like Twitter and Facebook cannot be held liable for what is said on their platform. Any fake news or misinformation is not their responsibility, even if their algorithm pushes it to the forefront of their trending pages.
Biden vs Big Tech
To anyone who paid close attention to Biden’s inauguration speech might have noticed Biden’s pointed statement, “And, we must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
While this could be the result of the recent attack on the Capitol, it is also not a surprise that Biden would so publicly call out Big Tech. Unlike Obama, he has never been a big fan of Big Tech, especially Facebook.
Sarah Miller, Director of the American Economic Liberties Project, and part of Biden’s transition team, has this to say about Mark Zuckerberg, “He’s not a welcome figure at the cocktail party any more. And I don’t think he has been for a long time…Facebook is broadly seen as the most prominent villain, among all the tech monopolists.”
It is clear to see that if Big Tech had hoped for respite or reconciliation under Biden, they have a hard road ahead. Especially Zuckerberg, who seems to be facing the brunt of Biden’s wrath.
When asked about whether Zuckerberg should face criminal charges, Biden told the New York Times in an interview, “He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability.”
The new president also has solid views on Section 230. According to the The Times, he highlights the failing of it in the same interview — “The Times can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But Zuckerberg can.”
But what is there to do about it? Biden’s plan is simple — the law should be “revoked immediately”. However, this comes with far more issues than those simple words can say. What new law will be placed in its stead? Will the US follow the EU in this regard? What of free speech?
These are all questions that Biden will have to answer.
As President, Biden finds himself in the position to truly act on his ideals and rein in Big Tech. Whether he does so by breaking them up, revoking Section 230, or a mixture of both, is up for debate. But it is a given that he will press charges, holding them accountable for any misdoings they are found guilty of.
The consequences of too much freedom for tech companies has finally come to a head. Going forward, these hearings and the subsequent fallout will shape the future of the internet. Regardless of what the outcome of the hearings, Big Tech will not be the same. What happens to them – and to people like us, who use their services – remains to be seen.
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.