In 2010, during a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the then-26-year-old founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg found himself seated alongside two future presidential candidates — Republican Chris Christie, who ran and lost his party’s nomination in 2016, and Democrat Cory Booker, currently vying for a chance to unseat U.S. President Donald Trump.
The trio visited Oprah to “put politics aside,” Winfrey told her audience, to announce a $100-million public schooling project. For students in Newark, N.J., the money was supposed to be a gift, though it was reportedly mismanaged. For Christie and Booker, the announcement was a publicity win: The two rising-star politicians were able to share the national spotlight with the billionaire wunderkind behind Facebook.
It’s doubtful any presidential candidate would view such a photo op as smart politics today. That’s because in the nine years since that Oprah appearance, Big Tech has become a big target on Capitol Hill.
The shots have come recently not just from Trump and his Republican compatriots, but also from the likes of Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren and disillusioned liberals. Last year, during a joint Senate judiciary and commerce hearing, Booker grilled Zuckerberg about “how technology platforms Facebook can actually be used to double down on discrimination” by running ads that exclude certain groups.
Booker notably did not bring up his 2010 partnership with Zuckerberg.
On Tuesday, Congress launched the first of a series of antitrust hearings targeting internet giants, part of a display of bipartisan condemnation that has marked a shift in how mainstream politicians across the political aisle view the largest online corporations dominating cyberspace. Lawmakers have vowed to place regulatory frameworks around the industry, if necessary.
“Politics is fashion,” said Rebecca Allensworth, who teaches antitrust law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Ten years ago, it was all about being champions of these companies. Now it’s very fashionable to hate on them.”
The sheer size of companies like Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, invite deep scrutiny, Allensworth said. The company’s expansion has raised flags about its labour practices, while Google has faced privacy and data-protection issues. Apple has been dogged by antitrust concerns.
Allensworth compared the technology industry’s political woes to that of the treatment of Big Tobacco over health fears.
“There’s a sense that the actual product is not what we thought it was,” she said.
Focus on the Big Four
Research into social media has shown links between usage and mental illness and depression, for example.
The radical change in attitudes primarily concerns Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. Greater knowledge about the power the Big Four wield is also scaring off consumers, said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think-tank that has been critical of tech behemoths.
More is known now about Big Data and how it’s harvested and used, Lynn said. He believes distrust in Big Tech corporations likely grew right around the 2016 presidential election cycle, amid the sharing of unreliable “news” content from suspect sources. He also pointed to the scandal involving political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and its harvesting of Facebook user data, and revelations about how Facebook’s app permissions allowed data exploitations.
“It’s about the amount of information these corporations are gathering and the sloppiness with which they care for that information,” he said. “It’s the revelations that these corporations interfere in the distribution of news and information within our society and sort of choke off trustworthy journalism by stealing their advertising revenue.”
If there was an inflection point that marked the end of mainstream politicians’ courtship with Big Tech, Lynn said, it might have been around June 2016, when Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, delivered a speech on antitrust at an event hosted by New America’s Open Markets Program.
In prepared remarks, she said companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon “snuff out competition” and limit opportunity for smaller players to enter the market.
She has found some unlikely backers in Republican senators, like Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham.
In March, arch-conservative Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz gave his first-ever public endorsement of a political idea of Warren’s. Ordinarily, she might be his political antithesis.
But when the anti-Wall Street crusader tore into Big Tech firms and warned of her plan to break up their concentration of power, Cruz chimed in. Facebook had temporarily pulled Warren’s ads calling for tech companies, including Facebook, to be broken up. Cruz slammed the move as censorship.
“She’s right,” the Texan tweeted of Warren’s proposal. “Big Tech has way too much power to silence Free Speech.”
That moment of apparent like-mindedness was repeated again this week.
Trump, speaking on CNBC’s Squawk Box, said “there’s something going on in terms of monopoly” when it comes to Big Tech. The U.S. president complained of bias from industry leaders in Silicon Valley, and also said he supports imposing steep antitrust fines against large tech companies.
Although Trump’s ire may be related more to personal politics and perceptions of a liberal bias among a Silicon Valley elite, Warren’s concerns are rooted in anti-competitiveness and market powers of companies and their ability to harm consumers.
Questions of regulation
The prospect of antitrust actions has put tech companies on the defensive. Powerful lobbying groups are reportedly preparing for a clash in Washington.
The New York Times, citing the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that monitors how money is spent in U.S. politics, said the Big Four tech firms are expected this year to exceed the $55 million they spent last year on lobbying.
Just as government split Standard Oil more than a century ago into 34 smaller companies, including today’s ExxonMobil and Chevron, U.S. lawmakers could use antitrust enforcement to de-merger tech giants, said Ron Knox, an editor at antitrust journal Global Competition Review.
A crucial question to ask might be whether Google, Facebook, Apple or Amazon, for instance, might involve services or networks that can be declared as so-called “essential facilities” — things necessary for the economy and for consumers to function, in the same way railroad tracks are needed for transporting freight. If the answer is yes, Knox said, he supports putting behavioural “guardrails” on tech firms.
But such regulations concern Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a science and tech policy think-tank. While he doesn’t oppose some sort of national privacy bill, Atkinson said rushing into regulation could harm innovation.
“We’re worried that a lot of the debate in Washington now is almost like a herd mentality,” he said.
Harper Reed, who helped lead voter-data collection as Chief Technology Officer for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, also cautioned that regulation could send the wrong message to a generation of entrepreneurs.
“With good regulation, we’d be creating a safe place for innovation,” he said. “But I would rather have no legislation than poorly done regulation.”