by Thomas Valentine
Bipartisan momentum is growing against big tech companies as state attorneys general come together to challenge big tech companies.
Last month a coalition of 48 state attorneys general, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, announced a joint antitrust investigation into Google. Paxton charged that Google “dominates all aspects of advertising on the Internet and searching on the Internet.” The attorneys general are in close contact with the federal government, which has taken steps of its own to investigate Google and other tech companies. Only two state attorneys general declined to join the probe: California — home to Google and thousands of tech companies in Silicon Valley — and Alabama.
Shortly after the announcement of the Google probe came word that New York Attorney General Letitia James was leading an eight-state coalition to investigate Facebook as a monopoly and serial privacy violator. The Washington Post reported this week that the coalition in the Facebook probe has since grown to 40 state attorneys general. The federal government is already investigating Facebook and Twitter for anti-competitive practices.
E-commerce giant Amazon is also being examined by the Federal Trade Commission, which is reportedly interviewing small businesses that sell on Amazon. Third-party sellers actually sell the majority of products on Amazon — 58 percent in 2018 — and Amazon makes billions in revenue from fees on these sales. Amazon also controls a huge amount of web traffic, controlling nearly half of the public cloud, meaning many of the websites you visit and files you upload to the web are stored on Amazon-owned servers.
Other companies are likely to get swept up in the wave of antitrust action, including Apple, which is already facing scrutiny for locking down app development on its iPhones and iPads.
Amidst these developments, Pew Research released a new poll which shows strong majorities of Americans are wary of the influence of social media on the news. Sixty-two percent said they believe social media companies have too much control over the mix of news people see, and 55 percent say that social media gives people a worse mix of news. A whopping 79 percent of respondents said they think social media companies favor news organizations “whose coverage has a certain political stance.” And that bias tends to run against conservatives: 48 percent of respondents say the posts in their social media feeds are generally liberal or very liberal, 36 percent say the posts are moderate, and just 15 percent say the posts are conservative or very conservative.
The poll showed that YouTube and Facebook are the most popular platforms — 74 percent and 71 percent use them, respectively — but Facebook is a source of news for 52 percent of respondents, nearly double that of YouTube, which was second highest. A tidbit that may be overlooked is that just 23 percent of Americans use Twitter, according to the poll, which will certainly come as a surprise to the Twitter-obsessed media class who live in that echo chamber.
The momentum towards legal action against big tech companies comes as Democrat presidential candidates and conservative voices alike have been calling for them to be reined in. The various probes are part of the first concerted effort against tech companies since the famous Microsoft antitrust case. In 1998, the Department of Justice and attorneys general from 20 states sued Microsoft for illegally thwarting competition in the personal computer space. After over two years of legal proceedings, Microsoft was found by a judge to have violated antitrust law and ordered to split into two companies. But Microsoft appealed, and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — considered to be one step below the Supreme Court — agreed that Microsoft had broken the law but ruled the judge had overreached and sent the case back down for a lesser penalty. In 2001, the Department of Justice dropped its attempt to break up Microsoft and settled on a deal in which Microsoft agreed to make its operating systems more accessible to third-party software.
The ramifications of these probes are unclear in the early stages. The state coalitions could join with the federal government to take sweeping legal action. They could force the breakup of the companies — for example, Google could have to sell off its advertising business, Facebook could have to sell Instagram, or Apple could have to open its app store to third parties — or they could push the federal government to create and enforce new regulations. And all this could be superseded by Congress acting first to pass legislation to crack down on big tech companies.
Photo credit: Carlos Luna via Flickr, CC BY 2.0