“Anti” may be the most potent prefix in the controversy surrounding the break-up of behemoth technology platforms. At issue is whether anti-competitive and anti-conservative will ultimately add up to antitrust. Odds are it will, and here’s why.
United They Stand?
It’s a rare occurrence, but Democrats and Republicans finally have an issue on which they agree. To wit, tech giants Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other technology platforms used by millions worldwide will be forced to restructure. For Democrats, their ire stems from anti-competitive practices. For Republicans, it is all about anti-conservative bias. Either way, both have merit, and it will be more than a challenge for the online giants to talk their way out of this one.
The CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook appeared “virtually” before a House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee on July 29 and got an earful from both sides of the political aisle. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) summed up the Democratic position by saying, “As gatekeepers to the digital economy, these platforms enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, shake down small businesses and enrich themselves while choking off competitors. Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.” The Rhode Island congressman isn’t the first Democrat to point out the monopolistic tendencies of the online big boys. Cicilline is taking a page out of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) playbook.
Mrs. Warren was out in front of this issue before and during her run for president. As far back as 2016, the Massachusetts senator voiced her suspicions about the gathering storm, saying, “Competition is dying. Consolidation and concentration are on the rise in sector after sector. Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy,” reported the Financial Times.
In another atypical moment of agreement, President Trump and presumptive Democratic challenger Joe Biden appear to be on the same page regarding the dissolution of big tech companies. Following Twitter’s fact-checking of two of the president’s tweets in May, he suggested legislation to scrap Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Meanwhile, Mr. Biden “was the only Democratic presidential candidate who called for revoking Section 230,” according to Reuters news. He’s also sparred with Google and stated, “I’ve never been a fan of Facebook.”
It’s all About 230
It could be said that one small slice of the Communications Decency Act holds the key to unraveling the big tech companies and largely demonstrates that it is within the hands of these gargantuan platforms as to whether they will suffer the fate of Standard Oil. It reads:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In layman’s terms, this rule means that if the digital platforms act as simple forums for people to connect and speak their minds, that’s one thing. But the minute they endeavor to regulate that speech, whether it be banning it or promoting it, these businesses could be considered publishers. That’s a real dilemma because publishing companies operate by a different set of rules. One of the primary distinctions is that publishers can be sued by individuals, such as the recent case with Covington High School student Nicholas Sandmann who took several news agencies to court and won.
So why do these giant tech companies feel the need to regulate, fact-check, comment on, throttle back, and ban public speech when Section 230 provides them with immunity from civil liabilities? Why not just take the money and run by letting freedom ring instead of playing the role of gatekeeper?
These large monopolies may be signing their own death warrants by continuing to exercise editorial control over the content. It’s a messy practice that will bring about no good to their corporate standing. As for Amazon, they are accused of being the most egregious in anti-competitive practices in the classic antitrust sense and will need to answer for their practices that many claim crush small businesses.
Any which way you slice this, with Democrats and Republicans chomping at the bit to bring down the most powerful corporate entities of the 21st Century, it is likely that no matter who is elected president – or who controls Congress – the big boys are going down. It’s just a matter of how and when.
Read more from Leesa K. Donner.