After a full year of investigation and hours of congressional testimony, the recent House judiciary report on Big Tech is finally here. While many critics are already complaining that it’s arrival is too late for any actionable response by Congress in this term, the fact that this report comes in the middle of a presidential election cycle is certainly noteworthy. As expected, this report does not pull its punches. Rhetorically, the report explicitly compares Big Tech (specifically Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook) to the oil barons and railroad tycoons of the Gilded Age, and accuses them of operating as though they were above the law.
Specifically, there is a two-fold charge against these companies, first that they use their market power to function as gatekeepers who can control access to markets and structure the rules for distribution, and second that they use their market power to surveil the industry and identify rising competitors who they then either copy, buy out, or acquire and kill. In summarizing their indictments, the report notes that these companies “wield their dominance in ways that erode entrepreneurship, degrade Americans’ privacy online, and undermine the vibrancy of the free and diverse press,” leading to “less innovation, fewer choices for consumers, and a weakened democracy.”
As a critic of Big Tech, I welcome the congressional scrutiny. But I am skeptical of the overall framing of this issue because it reflects a faulty belief regarding economic and political liberalism.
The reigning neoliberal orthodoxy has long maintained that political liberalism and economic liberalism are reinforcing and inextricable. The stunning rise of Chinese markets has forced us to reconsider this idea, showing us that economic liberalism need not coincide (at least in the short term) with political liberalism. The recent turn against Big Tech replicates this error of conflating liberalisms inasmuch as we are supposed to believe that merely constraining the economic practices of these companies can somehow render harmless their illiberal practices and neutralizing their effects on democracy.
This Isn’t About Economics
In terms of the civic imagination of the American public, the recent turn against Big Tech is not primarily about the issues debated by economists like how to achieve market equilibrium or increase allocative efficiency. And the turn against Big Tech is also not rooted in the typical issues facing the average consumer like less novelty and variety or increasing cost of goods and services.
In other words, for the average American citizen, the concern about Big Tech is fundamentally not about economic liberalism. There are certainly economic conversations to be had – say about Google prioritizing its own services in search results or Apple’s self-interested management of its app store or Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram or Amazon’s retaliation against rebellious suppliers – but these specific economic issues are both too granular and too incidental to get to the heart of our collective American grievance.
Don’t believe me? Consider the following questions. Has Amazon’s market power in retail made it cheaper or more expensive to buy retail goods? Are Apple cell phones worth the price, especially given the competition from other manufacturers including Android and Samsung? Is anyone forcing you to be on Facebook, and is there a lack of competing social media platforms that you could join instead? Would you prefer Google’s search results be less helpful? My point in asking these questions is to push back on the idea that these firms hurt consumers, even when they command large amounts of market power and operate with dubious anticompetitive practices to maintain or increase that power.
It is possible to concede the point, and still argue against Big Tech using abstract hypotheticals about how a more perfectly competitive market with a significant increase in sellers might lead to all sorts of good outcomes in terms of pricing and innovation. But I’m skeptical here too. These firms are valuable to us precisely because of how much market power they control, and specifically the number of users they boast.
After all, what’s the point of being on Facebook if everyone else isn’t on it too? And why turn to Google search if it’s aggregate power is less impressive or helpful than a search engine like Bing? And why use a retail site competitor to Amazon that has fewer sellers, higher prices, and slower delivery?
To quote strategist Ben Thompson, the problem here is that “so much modern antitrust action against tech companies is like pushing on a string: the reason these companies have power is because so many customers choose to use them, and it is both difficult and probably unwise to try and regulate the individual choices of billions of users.”
Big Tech and Political Liberalism
So if the turn against Big Tech isn’t primarily about economic liberalism, then what is the reason? I believe that we have Big Tech in our congressional rifle scope because we as citizens are rightly concerned about the immense (and often disruptive) political power that these outsized companies wield. We increasingly feel and fear the fragility of our own democracy, and our turn against Big Tech is rooted in our fears.
These fears regarding Big Tech are directly proportional to the amount of hope we had previously invested in Big Tech. Recall how so many once dreamed of Facebook connecting the world, and of Google making us all smarter. We optimistically used terms like ‘information highway” and “gig economy” and waxed poetically about how Twitter would aid the struggle for democracy around the world. Of course that was all before the 2008 market crash, and racist AI bots, and the Trump campaign, and Cambridge Analytica, and Russian cyberwarfare reports, and Chinese social credit systems, and American police departments using algorithmic predictive crime tools.
And so our long list of political indictments against Big Tech include: selling private user data in ways that allow for increasingly sophisticated manipulation by political operators; allowing and even inadvertently encouraging the spread of disinformation including that which is created by foreign adversaries as an explicit form of cyberwarfare; silencing political opponents or pushing particular political viewpoints whether through natural bias or active machinations; undermining (directly or indirectly) free elections both here and abroad; actively aiding and abetting tyrannical governments abroad; supporting various authoritarian policing and natural security measures domestically that undermine civic freedom; and otherwise unduly shaping public policy particularly through lobbying efforts.
Importantly, none of the concerns noted above would be solved simply by forcing these Big Tech to be better economic actors. We can imagine outcomes in which antitrust enforcement is beefed up (as recommended by the report), and in which horizontal mergers are blocked and market gatekeeping power is made more contestable. These are certainly worthy outcomes which I hope Congress will pursue. But these are also fundamentally technocratic fixes for economic inefficiencies: they do not deal with the greater political challenges.
As a first step beyond the House report, then, we need to explicitly recognize that these Big Tech firms are political actors situated within a political context in which everyday Americans feel impotent in the face of structures and systems too complex to understand, let alone control. And then we need to answer the question of whether we as a people will accept a political context and political economy that effaces individual agency and local self-determination. If the answer to that question is no, and if we truly have the will to change this context, we will need to figure out ways of collective bargaining to assert our dignity and power in opposition to the quite natural machinations of profit-driven corporations. New York City’s recent successful grassroots resistance to Amazon provides us with a model of what I am envisioning here.
I am grateful for the House report, and I think it signals fruitful lines of attack for companies that have seemed until now untouchable. I fully agree with antitrust hawk Matt Stoller’s assessment that this report will “immediately empower regulators all over the world who have been waiting for the U.S. to legitimize real action against large technology platforms.”
But I also think Stoller’s greatest insight is the one that will perhaps be most overlooked:
This report re-asserts Congress’s role as the central policymaking body in America, seizing control from judges who have re-written case law in ridiculous ways, as well as slothful enforcers.
Ultimately, it is Congress who is most responsible for structuring our political economy. And ultimately it is we the people to whom Congress is accountable, and from whom Congress receives its marching orders. Technocrats in the field of economics cannot save us from Big Tech. If we are to be saved, we will have to save ourselves.