Breaking Up Big Tech

America’s major tech platforms are using their outsize market-share to entrench their own dominance and insulate themselves from the threat of competition. Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple dominate the online economy but their CEOs deny that they stifle competition and harm the interests of consumers. 

The heads of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon appeared before angry US lawmakers as Congress prepares to weigh new anti-monopoly regulations, including possibly breaking their companies up. 

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos said the world "needs large" firms, while the heads of Facebook, Apple and Google argued their companies had spurred innovation.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said hat breaking up the big tech companies would hurt US competitiveness against China in developing new technologies and America’s ability to curb Chinese influence globally. Zuckerberg contrasted between what he described as Facebook’s “American” values and ideas with those of China. “China is building its own version of the Internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries,” he said in his prepared testimony. 

Google CEO Sundar Pichei answered several questions about his company’s loyalty to the United States by recounting its expanding work with the Defense Department. Ever more, he attempted to cast Google as an engine of US innovation claimng that the company he runs is helping America remain a global leader in the emerging technologies of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and quantum computing. Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO who now chairs the Defense Innovation Board has made similar statements.

Critics like Prof. Ganesh Sitaraman of Vandebilt University Law Faculty say that linking the big tech companies with American innovation is actually the problem. He says these companies are too intricately engaged with China to be purely American. 

US Lawmakers are certainly suspicious of how the big tech interacts with the Chinese government and report from the research firm Top10VPN shows that Amazon provides web services to Chinese companies on a Commerce Department sanctioned “Entity” list. Google has an AI research effort in China. From the Pentagon’s perspective, American tech giants do offer a unique technological resource, one that does produce innovation and that arguably would not exist if they were broken up. Consider the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud program. Smaller cloud providers complained that the program’s requirements were tilted toward Amazon, the only company that many believed could meet them. 

US companies’ size and data accumulation capabilities give the country economic and political influence around the globe. If the US technology giants are broken up, the result would be a vastly uneven global playing field, pitting fragmented US companies against consolidated state-protected Chinese firms.

Many Americans and Europeans worry about the amount and volumes of personal data that the tech giants possess and can use.

If Washington can keep the bipartisan focus on Silicon Valley, the hearing could set the stage for historic regulations, but the tech CEOs will be making the case to lawmakers that laws aimed at reining in the scale and power of each company are not necessary, contending that competition among rivals has not been squashed and that consumers have benefited from the technology sector's success.

Its a very unpopular argument among the four tech giants but the market power these companies have accumulated justifies their investigation by lawmakers and regulators.  

The Conversation:     DefenseOne:     BBC:     NPR:       NY Magazine:       Boston University


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