Editorial: Time for an end to the freewheeling Big Tech era
Another week, another high-profile effort to rein in Big Tech. No, we’re not talking about former President Trump’s ludicrous lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for allegedly violating his free-speech rights (Spoiler alert: They didn’t).
We’re referring to the antitrust lawsuit that California, 35 other states and the District of Columbia brought against Google for allegedly abusing its dominance over mobile phone operating systems.
The states’ complaint, which focuses on the 15% to 30% tax Google imposes on developers of apps offered through its Google Play store, plows a path similar to the one taken by Epic Games in its lawsuits against Google and Apple. Also pending are suits brought by the Justice Department and another group of states against Google, accusing it of illegally trying to protect its leading positions in online search and advertising.
President Biden joined the fray Friday with an executive order promoting competition in tech and other industries, calling on the Federal Trade Commission to scrutinize several practices by Big Tech companies that enabled them to build, defend and extend their market power. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee has advanced five bills that aim to limit or diffuse the influence wielded by Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.
We’re seeing all this now in part because both sides of the political divide have turned on Big Tech. The major online platforms alienated Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike with their handling of misinformation and politically charged speech, their hoovering of personal information and their disturbingly vast reach and sway.
The sustained dominance of these platforms has also weakened what used to be an article of faith about the internet: that the relentless innovation and competition online would inevitably upend the top dogs and usher in new market leaders, even in the absence of regulation. That faith had been well-founded — witness the rise and fall of AOL, MySpace, Blackberry and countless other big players. But as researchers have noted, today’s platforms are more entrenched thanks to huge advantages of scale and more aggressive efforts by the platform operators to ward off rivals.
Big Tech companies insist that they aren’t standing in the way of competition but instead giving consumers what they want. And granted, that scale and power has some public benefits. For example, people join Facebook largely because they can connect with so many others there. And for app developers, it helps to have just a few dominant platforms that can provide a secure gateway to billions of potential customers.
The issue for policymakers and the courts, though, is whether the public is losing something by not having more competition to provide the services Big Tech platforms provide and not seeing more turnover at the top. It’s why lawmakers should pursue efforts to help rival tech companies interoperate with the platforms, make it easier for people to switch to other platforms, let consumers control their own data and toughen the rules against unfair practices by platform operators.
The internet flourished in its formative years with little or no regulation. The sustained dominance of a handful of Big Tech companies, however, shows that those days are over. The network effects of the internet encourage the development of monopoly power, and it’s up to the courts and Congress to make sure that power isn’t abused.
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