It’s a running theme these days: That big tech is has become overly powerful, that Facebook and Google regulate speech on their respective platforms, that Apple and Amazon misuse their monopoly power. But what — exactly — does all of this mean? Why should we care even if big tech has gotten too big?
The stakes are high — for the industry, yes, but especially for the American consumer.
After all, Americans love their tech — and many of us couldn’t live or work without an always steady, high-speed internet connection. We love scrolling our Facebook and Instagram feeds — and especially appreciate the latter’s artistic simplicity. Many of us have relied on Amazon Fresh for grocery deliveries during (and long before) the Covid-19 pandemic. The iPhone is possibly the most beautiful widely available consumer device. And I’ll admit — I’ll quite often spend hours on YouTube catching up on politics and sports.
But as Silicon Valley tightens its stranglehold on the digital media environment every year — especially so in 2020 as we have relied ever more on technology to help stay connected through the coronavirus outbreak — the silent danger of the domination over digital media achieved by these four firms looms large.
But it is one thing to possess a monopoly and quite another to cause harm based off of the market power afforded through that monopoly position.
I see three broad public interest areas in which the big four firms should present serious concern to every American — and indeed could implicate the national economy in various ways if nothing is done to rein in their market power: Consumer prices, quality of services rendered and innovation in the marketplace.
It’s a circumstance that kills the incentive for members of the industry and entrepreneurs to develop new features and web technologies for us to interact and engage with — and severely diminishes the progress of vibrancy and dynamism across the internet.
These are the negative impacts that we — as everyday users of the internet — are experiencing. And yet, we don’t feel them. We don’t feel our pockets getting lighter, or the pace of digital innovation slowing gradually, and many users aren’t even subjected to the racism, bigotry, hatred and conspiracy-peddling that’s become the norm for some of us — particularly, marginalized communities. But the fact that we don’t feel these harms doesn’t mean they’re not happening — and the silent nature of the damage they do should be most concerning of all.
The Judiciary Committee must probe into these issues: It must ask the questions necessary to build evidence that can point to the harms that Big Tech has done in the realms of prices rendered to consumers, market innovation and quality of service.
And beyond these issues, there is yet another looming danger: Increasingly, these companies are showing features of not only being monopolies, but natural monopolies. We cannot imagine an alternative to them anymore. Barriers to entry are too high given the physical and digital infrastructures these companies have built up to protect their market positions.
They ride a powerful network effect, whereby as more and more users join their networks they become economically ever more powerful. In time, we cannot imagine societal investment in an alternative; why build a second railroad, or electric network, or telephone line — or, indeed, social media network — when you have one that “works”?
These are the issues Congress must break down for Americans — and if we can successfully do so, we’ll finally make headway down the long road of rebalancing power in the media ecosystem from Silicon Valley to the rest of society.