In a political landscape that could only be further polarised by the addition of penguins and an iceberg, it’s not a controversial statement to say that there are very few genuinely bi-partisan issues. One of the few that does reach across the aisle is that tech giants are becoming a little too much like regular storybook giants: with all of the “grinding your bones/personal data to make my bread” that that entails. The general consensus is that something needs to be done, though many would preface that by specifying preferably something that doesn’t impact prices or ease of use. Once the Pandora’s Box of comfort and affordability is open you can never go back to the way things were; try using dial up internet sometime if you don’t believe it.
The problem with the tech giants is that when we say ‘Big Tech’ most of us don’t really fathom just how big we’re talking. Google currently runs the most popular search engine, the most popular web browser, and the most popular mobile operating system (on a worldwide basis, at least). Amazon hired 427,000 people this year, bringing its global workforce to well over 1 million. In its most recent quarter, Facebook brought in an average of $230 million in revenue each day. These companies have the kind of power that medium sized nations would be jealous of and they gained it in just a few short decades. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (the so-called FANG companies, which doesn’t exactly speak to their warm and fuzzy qualities) rode the internet explosion all the way to the top and have re-ordered society so thoroughly that ‘complete internet breakdown’ ranks just under ‘the dead walk the earth’ when it comes to apocalypses.
Our not-so-cosy civilisation is underwritten by tech and for far too long the companies at the forefront were borderline encouraged to expand at meteoric rates. The tech-companies were fun, exciting and seemed to have a genuine utopian social consciousness; Google even had ‘Don’t Be Evil’ as its motto! (In what would be hokey foreshadowing if it was in a film and is just plain depressing in real life, they later removed that motto.) There was an unexpressed feeling that these companies were going to help the world become a better place somehow. By the time we started realising that Silicon Valley wasn’t staffed by Sci-Fi messiahs who were going to bring us to a digital land of milk and honey, but rather the kind of people who thought that Bladerunner was a model for good corporate development, it was too late.
The original attempts to try to put the genie back in the bottle were hesitant and rather stymied by the fact that decades of neo-liberal dogma had made ‘regulation’ a dirty word. The international scope of the tech industry made individual governments nervous of anti-trust legislation, fearing that by upsetting the digital overlords they might just cause them to up-sticks and leave. The FANG companies have exploited this combination of cringing servility along with various tax codes designed to allow the wealthy to become rich enough to hunt the poor for sport in order to effectively become Gilded Age Robber Barons with vape pens and flip flops. This potent combination is how Amazon managed to pay no federal tax in America for most of the previous decade.
The first entity big enough to really take a swing at FANG was the EU, who went after Google’s parent company Alphabet for particularly flagrant antitrust violations in 2010. They charged that Google exploited its dominant position in the marketplace by openly requiring partners to exclusively use Google AdSense (to preferentially weight their own products or those of their partners in Google searches even if they didn’t fit the search), and in its acquisition of fitness company Fitbit, amongst a host of other charges. The case has dragged on for a decade (with the Fitbit investigation still not concluded at the time of writing), but the EU found Google guilty of a number of violations and was able to claw nearly 8 billion euros in putative fines out of the tech behemoth. However, beyond the fines (that Google can easily shrug off) critics have complained that the EU has basically left Google to come up with solutions to fix the problems itself, and the results have been about what you’d expect for asking the criminal to pick their punishment. One of their applied solutions is offering competitors the chance to have their search engines on Android phones… if they’re willing to pay Google a not so modest fee of course. The EU has hit back against the criticism by citing how difficult it is to restore competition to a market that’s already basically monopolised. Less loudly they have also acknowledged that international politics made taking aggressive moves to break up an American company’s monopoly effectively impossible. However, this might be set to change.
On October 20th the United States Department of Justice took one of the biggest steps yet to try to bring Big Tech to heel by filing suit against Google’s parent company Alphabet for illegal monopolization of the search and ad markets, kicking off one of the largest antitrust cases in US history. As the case was filed in the dying days of the Trump presidency, Biden’s picks for Attorney General will have a huge impact on the shape of the case. Already there is disagreement over whether the federal case against Google is broad enough and, as the case heats up, it seems likely that such an important case could prove a political opening for a Republican party looking to reassert itself after the debacle of November’s election defeat. According to the Wall Street Journal an additional four cases are in the works against Facebook and Google over leveraging their position to maintain their dominance in the advertising market, and the DOJ is considering expanding its original case against Google.
What effect these cases will have is difficult to foresee. Public anger against corporations behaving like clean-cut gangsters is at an all time high, but then so is corporate lobbying. These companies are too big to fail and they are too big to allow themselves even the fleeting possibility of being brought back down to earth. There is a long, hard road ahead before we see anything that’s even playing the same sport, let alone in the same ballpark, of systemic change. But it is vital that an attempt is made: the FANGs are at our throat and, no matter what New Labour told us, Things Can Only Get Worse.