Providing equal opportunities for similar businesses that operate in particular industries while preventing them from acquiring too much power over their competition, is for most countries a policy required to legally regulate trades and protect consumers. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, in 1890 the Sherman Act – the first antitrust law – was passed by U.S. Congress, as a comprehensive charter of economic liberty aimed at preserving free and unrestricted competition as the rule of trade. This was followed by two additional antitrust laws in 1914 – the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Clayton Act.
Antitrust laws, also known as competition laws were developed by the U.S. government to protect consumers from companies' exploitative modus operandi. These laws evolve along with the market, while enforcing just and honest competitiveness in an open-market economy, and carefully defending against would-be monopolies.
"Many of the practices used by these companies have harmful economic effects, discouraging entrepreneurship, destroying jobs [...], they have too much power..." – David Cicilline, House Judiciary Chairman
On July 29th, 2020, the Tech Titans – Google's Sundar Pichai, Apple's Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and Amazon's Jeff Bezos – were summoned to testify before Congress's Antitrust Committee on commercial, administrative and antitrust laws. Lawmakers believe that these tech giants are abusing their positions and are crippling the competition. According to House Judiciary Chairman, David Cicilline, "Many of the practices used by these companies have harmful economic effects, discouraging entrepreneurship, destroying jobs [...], they have too much power..." For more than 5 hours, these CEOs addressed several allegations including political censorship, abuse of power, and data surveillance.
For many years, antitrust experts have been building the case against big techs' predatory pricing, questionable acquisitions, and copycat behaviors which make it difficult for small businesses and competitors to succeed. The companies are accused of using inappropriate approaches to coerce smaller companies into selling their businesses. They would allegedly threaten to clown smaller companies' businesses and drive them to bankruptcy if they refused to sell out. According to the committee, this was also the case in Facebook's acquisition of Instagram.
Congresswoman Jayapal stated that "prior to acquiring Instagram, Facebook begin developing a similar product called FacebookCamera..." It was this product that was allegedly used to threaten Instagram's CEO Kevin Stytrom. Similarly, Google's CEO was confronted by House Judiciary Chairman Cicilline on litigations about stealing restaurant reviews from Yelp – A crowd-sourced local business review and social networking site – to bootstrap its own rival local search business. And when Yelp complained to Google about stealing their data, they were faced with a threat of their platform being delisted from Google search, argued Mr. Cicilline.
Each of these four companies has equally been believed to utilize similar approaches when responding to competitors. In the hearing, the committee reviewed how each company controls distribution, surveys small new companies, and how they use their market dominance to suppress competition. Facebook and Google control how information is shared according to the committee, while Apple and Amazon exercise supreme power over their online market places, forcing developers to abide by somehow conflicting rules.
Although most online users can easily ignore these hearings, it is important to understand the impact and power of tech giants over us. In 2007, Google purchased DoubleClick – an integrated ad technology platform that enables advertisers to more effectively create, manage and grow high-impact digital marketing campaigns. With that purchase, Google acquired the ability to connect to users' personal identity through their browsing activities and pursue to merge the acquired data to their system, effectively destroying anonymity on the Internet. Simply put, Google can now combine all of the users' information – location, search history, emails, and a record of all websites visited, etc... – subsequently violating users' privacy. When asked to address this issue by Congresswoman Demings, Google's CEO, stated that the site reminds users to go through a privacy check-up (essentially getting them to agree to the site's terms and conditions contract) and claimed that the merge of data was done to allow users to be in control of their data within a central location. However, due to Google's dominance users may have no choice but to surrender. And "because Google sells behavioral ads, the more data Google collects the more money they make", stated Congresswoman Demings.
In the wake of the hearing, one cannot help but come to the realization of the growing power of these four tech giants within the technology industry. Given all the information acquired, governments must critically think of ways to ensure not only fair business conduct from all tech companies but also ensure the safety and privacy of online users within virtual spaces.
What regulations should govern building businesses around personal data? Where do the responsibilities lie with regard to the harm caused by tech titans? Those are the questions to ask as tech companies expand their reach. Although existing Antitrust laws date back to the 1800s, traditional regulations should be restructured and focus on the new challenges brought forth by Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple.