Sunday Longread: Breaking up big tech

Conservatives decrying “unfair” treatment ally with progressives

As concerns deepen over the power of companies such as Google and Facebook, a growing coalition of countries are making moves to regulate the power of Big Tech. Europe has been a global leader when it comes to increasing the pressure on tech giants, with the EU threatening to introduce hefty fines to penalize companies that refuse to “play fair.” Last month, after the European Commission proposed a similar framework in its Digital Markets Act (DMA), Germany approved a reform of national competition law, making them the first country in the world with preventative rules tailored to combat the market power of large digital platforms.

The UK and China are also pursuing similar rules for similar reasons. The British Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched an investigation into Google over potential violations of antitrust law, while Beijing recently announced plans to impose competition obligations on Big Tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and the Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba. Now, the US has become the latest country to join global efforts to bring the technology sector under regulatory control, filing antitrust lawsuits against Google and Facebook.

US president Joe Biden said during the election campaign that he wants to “break up economic monopolistic powers”, mirroring calls from high profile progressive lawmakers such as Senator Elizabeth Warren. House Democrats, who previously launched a 15-month investigation into the market power abuses of Big Tech, issued a 400-page report condemning Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon for engaging in anti-competitive behavior. They called for stronger regulations to curb the reach of these monopolies. Now the Right have joined the call, although for different reasons.

For some time, prominent American conservatives have hit out at companies such as Facebook and Google for the supposed censorship of Republicans and conservative views. This animosity has only intensified after social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube banned or suspended Donald Trump and other members of the Republican party who pushed dangerous conspiracy theories and incited violence online. Fellow tech giants Apple and Amazon have also removed Parler, a social media app popular among the far-right and Trump supporters for their failure “to rein in hate-filled, violent speech”.

“When the right talk about content moderation, they want to remove the “conservative bias” that they believe exists on social media.”

These suspicions have provided a rare and notable instance of bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans for strengthening anti-trust laws. However, while the two parties agree that tech companies have too much power, their wildly different reasons do not translate into obvious solutions. Speaking to Trinity News, MSISS student and member of DU Pirate Party Bríd O’Donnell said: “When the right talk about content moderation, they want to remove the “conservative bias” that they believe exists on social media. This bias hasn’t been proven”. 

“When the left talk about content moderation they are talking about hate speech and radicalisation on social media,” O’Donnell said. “Both sides recognise that Big Tech has too much control over public discourse and that there needs to be some serious change on the regulation and enforcement of content moderation however neither side agrees with what that moderation would look like.”

“This is why I don’t think the left or right are exactly united. Both sides want Big Tech to be punished and to be weakened.”

“This is why I don’t think the left or right are exactly united. Both sides want Big Tech to be punished and to be weakened. How they are going to do that is unclear.”

This appears to hold true, as polls have found that while the vast majority of Democrats approved of Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Donald Trump following the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, the majority of Republicans disapproved. This polarity in responses highlights a divergent criticism of tech companies among the two parties.

O’Donnell believes the cornerstone of the content moderation issue is Section 230, better known as the “26 words that created the internet”. This small piece of law which was introduced in the 90s essentially says that websites do not have the same liabilities as publishers. However websites can still moderate so long as they do it in good faith. Therefore, Twitter is neither a public square nor a publisher, existing somewhere in between. “Section 230 is hugely important in the growth of the general ecosystem of the internet and social media. However it also gives a free legal pass when it comes to moderation issues to internet giants now like Facebook and YouTube,” she said.

“I mentioned section 230 because both Biden and Trump have mentioned repealing this law. That would be big,” she continued. “Firstly you can’t just repeal it, you need to replace the law with something, because as much as Facebook should have more liability for what is posted on it, it is definitely not a publisher the same way Trinity News or the New York Times is.” She added: “Also repealing Section 230 would just destroy a ton of smaller sites, which would actually benefit the Big Tech giants in the long run”, effectively undermining the goals of antitrust laws.

Despite this, support for antitrust action has led to five antitrust cases being launched against tech companies. Both the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general from 48 states and territories filed twin lawsuits against Facebook claiming it illegally maintained its social media monopoly through acquisitions of rival companies, such as Instagram and WhatsApp. Similar cases brought against Google accuse the search engine of also illegally maintaining its monopolies.

The trajectory of these efforts will likely be dependent on who President Biden appoints to the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, the government agencies that oversee antitrust cases. Biden’s pick for attorney general, Judge Merrick Garland, considered likely to be a formidable opponent of Big Tech, has written about antitrust law, briefly taught the subject at Harvard Law School, and has weighed in on a number of antitrust cases while serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

According to O’Donnell, plenty of experts are debating this issue but unfortunately, few of them are influential in the policy circles of Washington DC. “It’s more likely that the big donors from Silicon Valley will have their way with both the left and the right. On this issue, I doubt content regulation will be seriously and effectively enforced. You are more likely to see privacy laws and antitrust action breaking up Big Tech.”

Sean Gordon Dalton

Sean is a Deputy Features Editor at Trinity News