Big Tech under attack from everybody as it concentrates power

A Journal of People report

big tech

Big Tech companies are facing pressure from all sides: governments, consumers, and their own employees.

A Business Insider report said:

Governments from Australia to the U.S. are cracking down on big tech companies.

Employees are working to form unions at firms like Google and Amazon.

Consumers appear to be more distrustful of the biggest platforms than ever before.

The increased level of scrutiny on Big Tech marks a reckoning of sorts for the industry, one borne out of an increasing understanding of the power these companies wield and a shifting cultural mood toward activism and holding the powers that be accountable.

Experts say it will result in a seismic shift in the industry and one that is already affecting governments, tech companies, and consumers alike.

“There was a golden era when people focused on the enormous good technology could do to connect users to one another and democratize access to information,” Alexandra Givens, president and CEO at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told. “Now, there’s increasing recognition that with this great power comes great responsibility.”

Governments are ratcheting up the pressure

The report said:

Last summer, something unprecedented happened: the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google testified before Congress at the same time over concerns they engaged in anticompetitive practices – and they got grilled.

Since then, the Justice Department has filed a landmark antitrust suit against Google, one that is expected to reverberate throughout the tech industry.

It marks a turning point, not only in how lawmakers on both sides of the aisle view the tech giants, but also in how prepared they are to scrutinize them. As Givens noted, lawmakers staffed up ahead of the hearings in order to be better prepared to question tech CEOs, an effort she expects will continue to “bear fruit” in 2021. (The most recent tech-focused government appointee is Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor and outspoken critic of Big Tech, who will serve on the National Economic Council.)

State governments are also now beginning to probe tech giants’ business practices on numerous fronts:

a group of dozens of states has filed their own antitrust complaint against Google;

the Arizona House recently passed a bill that would allow app developers to use their own payments systems, circumventing the tariffs imposed by Google’s and Apple’s app stores; and

Maryland is imposing a new tax on revenue from digital ads sold by tech giants.

The U.S. is not the only one taking action over how tech companies behave.

Just in the last month, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber should count its drivers as workers, an issue Uber, as well as Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash, have fought against in the U.S. as well.

In Australia, the government passed a new law that requires Google and Facebook to pay publishers in order to display their news content in search results and on news feeds.

“It reflects a growing recognition of the fundamental role that technology plays in people’s lives: from how we discover new information to how we connect with friends and family, to how we access job opportunities, find housing, access government benefits,” Givens said.

There is the issue of Section 230. The law, officially known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, is a point of contention for both Republicans and Democrats – it states that internet platforms like Facebook or Twitter cannot be regulated as publishers, meaning they cannot be held accountable for speech on their platforms.

Givens said this issue, and the issue of misinformation on social media platforms more broadly, is more top of mind than ever before following the 2020 election, which she described as a turning point for many people in realizing the effects online public discourse can have on democracy. As a result, Facebook and Twitter actually changed their policies and instituted bans they had previously been reluctant to impose.

“We suddenly saw this flourishing of far more creative ways to try and improve the health of information on these online services, and you could tell that was the companies really trying to rise to the moment and importantly, rise to public pressure about the moment,” she said. “This didn’t all happen in a vacuum. This was from civil society, organizations, community, activists, employees, all calling on them to do more.”

Consumers are holding tech companies accountable

The Business Insider report added:

Government crackdowns are just one piece of the puzzle: there has also been a noticeable shift from in thinking among both tech employees and the customers they serve.

Two Pew Research Center surveys from the last two years show that Americans have a much less rosy outlook on Big Tech than they did in the past.

A 2019 survey showed that the percentage of Americans who believe that tech companies have a positive impact on society plummeted more than 20 percentage points from 2015, from 71% to 50%.

Those who felt tech companies have a negative impact rose from 17% to 33% during this same period.

Last year, a second Pew survey found that 72% of adults in the U.S. believe social media companies have too much power and influence in politics, with about half of respondents on both ends of the political spectrum saying the government should regulate tech companies more than they currently do.

Givens chalked up the increased consumer distrust partly to increased awareness among consumers about how their information is being used and shared, which is inspiring tech companies to make changes to their products – Apple, for example, has long touted its commitment to privacy, but it will soon roll out a new software feature that goes one step further: It will allow users to opt out of tracking for advertising purposes, a tool that caused an uproar from app developers, and from Facebook.

“There’s an appetite for businesses to compete on privacy as an asset that they can market to users,” Givens said.

Facebook has been hit with that consumer pressure as well in the form of outrage over its messaging app, WhatsApp.

In January, WhatsApp issued new terms and conditions that revealed to many users that the app shares user data with its parent company, Facebook. It sent users into frenzy and caused many of them to switch to a different messaging app, Signal, which resulted in WhatsApp delaying the date by which users would need to accept the new terms and conditions. Still, WhatsApp and Facebook have not adjusted their ways as a result of users’ frustration, at least not yet.

Employee activism

The report said:

Beyond consumer skepticism, there is another powerful force brewing inside tech companies: employee activism.

In January, more than 200 employees at Google formed a union known as the Alphabet Workers Union.

The union, a rarity among Silicon Valley tech giants, has a stated goal to promote more inclusive working conditions at the company and ensure executives act in the best interests of both society and the environment.

Sonny Tambe, an associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told he believes the newfound energy around this initiative is a spillover from the activism around social justice in the U.S. last summer. Tech companies cannot afford to ignore that momentum, he said, because of how competitive the industry is.

“I think part of the halo effect for tech has been, they’ve been some of the best places to work, and this is important to them,” Tambe said. “These firms are competing, not just for customers, but also for workers, and workers are not going to stop having strong opinions about the way the world works and the way that their employer impacts the world around them.”

That employee activism has been bubbling up for years at Google, beginning most notably in 2018 with the Google walkout in protest of sexual misconduct and most recently with the firings of some of its top AI ethicists.

At Amazon, an AWS employee recently filed a lawsuit alleging racial and gender discrimination at the company; Amazon workers have protested warehouse working conditions throughout the pandemic (and lawmakers are investigating Amazon’s COVID response as well); and at one of the company’s warehouses in Alabama, workers are pushing to unionize, which a union president who would represent those employees linked to the Black Lives Matter protests as well.

Tambe said he believes there is a growing understanding among tech workers that because they are highly skilled and have a lot of agency, it is incumbent on them to be part of the larger conversation about how their companies are held accountable.

“These forces that are converging on Big Tech, they’re substantial,” he said. “A lot of stakeholders are realizing at a similar time that not all tech is moving us forward in positive ways, that these firms are very large and powerful, and that as consumers, as customers, as regulators, we need to be quite cognizant of this.”

Big Tech was turning on one another 

A MarketWatch report by Jon Swartz, senior reporter, MarketWatch in San Francisco, said:

Big Tech is taking on the same trappings as companies turn on one another amid multiple antitrust investigations and issues.

As the U.S. Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, Congress and state attorneys general dig deeper into their probes, and as Apple Inc. and Epic Games Inc. duke it out in court, some of the companies targeted are taking a page out of the squared circle and turning on one another.

The Sept. 12, 2020 report said:

Facebook Inc. is targeting Apple amid its fight with Epic over 30% fees on the App Store. In TV commercials and brand messaging, Apple repeatedly takes swipes at the privacy policies of Facebook in its pursuit of targeted advertising. High-profile names in tech, meanwhile, question business systems at Google and Amazon ahead of charges against those companies that are expected soon. All the while, Big Tech employees and executives increasingly are grumbling about Microsoft Corp. seemingly getting a free pass from the Trump administration.

In a closed-door meeting with Facebook employees in late August, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said Apple “charge[d] monopoly rents” which “blocks innovation, blocks competition.” He further upped the ante Tuesday, suggesting in an interview with Axios that the government should investigate the App Store. “I think some of the behavior certainly raises questions,” he said. “And I do think it’s something that deserves scrutiny.”

Not to be excluded, Microsoft claimed Apple’s threat to revoke Epic’s developer account would have far-reaching effects harmful to the videogame industry.

“If Unreal Engine cannot support games for iOS or macOS, Microsoft would be required to choose between abandoning its customers and potential customers on the iOS and macOS platforms or choosing a different game engine when preparing to develop new games,” Kevin Gammill, Microsoft’s general manager for Gaming Developer Experiences, said in a statement. “Apple’s discontinuation of Epic’s ability to develop and support Unreal Engine for iOS or macOS will harm game creators and gamers.”

Complicating matters, Apple on Friday imposed changes to its App Store that could severely hamper game-streaming services from Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud. Among the revisions to iOS 14, the latest version of the iPhone operating system expected later this month, one would require games offered in the service to be downloaded directly from App Store — not from an all-in-one app like Alphabet Inc. and Microsoft are offering.

In another wrinkle to the Apple-Facebook standoff, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri on Friday told CNBC that the company strongly objects to a planned change to iOS that would impact how it and other mobile advertisers track users. On Thursday, Apple said it would delay until early next year changes to its privacy policy that Facebook and others claim will eviscerate advertising sales targeting users on iPhones and iPads.

The report said:

Even those who helped create some of tech’s most important properties are aghast at what they have become. In August, YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley asked via Twitter if “YouTube become the Amazon of video? If so, where is the Shopify of video?”

“What if I told you the obnoxiously high 30% App Store fee was a deal? This is the story of a video site that uses it’s size and power to take nearly double that,” he wrote.

A long list of former Facebook employees and advisers — among them, co-founder Chris Hughes, ex-Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos and venture capitalist Roger McNamee — have commented with distress about the company’s impact on society. Hughes went so far last year as to advocate breaking up the company.

A circular firing squad

The Market Watch report said:

The finger-pointing and name-calling belies long-simmering competition between four companies — Apple, Google parent Alphabet, Inc., and Facebook — that are under scrutiny from a phalanx of investigative bodies over their business practices and vast influence in multiple markets. Antitrust experts jokingly refer to those under investigation as GAFA.

More important, the circular firing squad could portend a slew of forthcoming actions on the antitrust front: The Justice Department is expected to bring charges against Google as early as this month, a person familiar with the investigation told MarketWatch. The House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, meanwhile, could issue a report this month on its recommendations following its July 29 hearing on Big Tech, two people close to the situation told MarketWatch.

It added:

Fueling the acrimony is genuine concern from the far-right to the far-left. “Big Tech is big oil. It is a bipartisan issue,” Anurag Chandra, a partner at venture-capital firm Fort Ross Ventures, told MarketWatch. “These guys have gotten massive. We have to get involved with public policy over privacy and use of personal data.”

“Google and Amazon would seem to be first in line for actions,” he added. “They create and operate forums, and then compete in them. By putting their thumbs on the scale that sounds like grounds for antitrust actions.”

Fueling the accelerated timetable is the increasing willingness among smaller companies to speak up against the Big Four.

“You will also see non-GAFA companies air their grievances more publicly because they aren’t in danger of being punished with so much attention on their business practices,” said Joel Mitnick, a former FTC trial lawyer who specializes in antitrust and global litigation. “It is out in the ether now. What is more important is the entire regulatory machinery around the world is gearing up against the Big Four. The infighting is background noise.”

Why the review?

A report by The Indian Express – Explained: Why big tech firms are under scrutiny in U.S. – said:

In the U.S., Google has close to 90 per cent market share in search. Amazon’s share in the online market space is around 37 per cent, according to a report by EMarketer in June 2019. In social media, Facebook remains dominant with its apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp having more than a billion users each.

In the past, Facebook has also been accused of stifling competition by either buying out rivals or by introducing features that are a direct copy of its biggest rivals.

Is it the first time that these companies are facing scrutiny?

The July 28, 2019 report by Shruti Dhapola said:

The call for regulation is not new; indeed, there have been such demands across the world in the past.

Facebook was recently fined $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating and misusing user privacy. Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has called for big tech companies such as Facebook to be broken up. There is a worry that these companies are completely monopolizing the online space and killing all competition.

The European Union (EU) has hit Google with three separate fines since 2017; all fines have been on account of antitrust and anti-competitive practices. In March 2019, it was a €1.5 billion fine for Google misusing its AdSense technology. In 2018, the fine was a record €4.3 billion for misusing its dominant position with Android, and in 2017, the number stood at €2.4 billion for dominating shopping search results with its own pages and stifling competition.

Germany opened investigations into Amazon’s dealings with third-party sellers in 2018 and, in 2019, Austria and Italy opened antitrust investigations against the e-commerce giant. On July 17, the EU opened a separate investigation into anti-competitive practices by Amazon.

Apple will face an antitrust inquiry from the EU as a formal probe will begin over music-streaming service Spotify’s complaint that the technology giant was effectively charging a tax on its competitors by demanding a 30 per cent fee for in-app subscriptions and payments.

In India, Google was fined $21.1 million for search bias by the Competition Commission of India (CCI) last year. In June this year, Reuters reported that Google was again being investigated for misusing its Android dominance in India.


A Chatham House – International Affairs Think Tank  report – Deplatforming Trump Puts Big Tech Under Fresh Scrutiny – by said:

The response of digital platforms to the US Capitol riots raises questions about online content governance. The EU and UK are starting to come up with answers.

The Trump-issue

The January 22, 2021 report by Harriet Moynihan, Senior Research Fellow, International Law Programme, said:

The ‘deplatforming’ of Donald Trump – including Twitter’s announcement that it has permanently banned him due to ‘the risk of further incitement of violence’ after the riots in the US – shows once more not only the sheer power of online platforms but also the lack of a coherent and consistent framework for online content governance.

Taking the megaphone away from Trump during the Capitol riots seems sensible, but was it necessary or proportionate to ban him from the platform permanently? Or consistent with the treatment of other ‘strongmen’ world leaders such as Modi, Duterte and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who have overseen nationalistic violence but whose accounts remain intact?

Such complex decisions on online expression should not made unilaterally by powerful and unregulated tech actors, but instead should be subject to democratic oversight and grounded in the obligations of states and responsibilities of companies under international human rights law.

The speed and scale of digital information has left governments across the world struggling with how to tackle online harms such as hate speech, extremist content and disinformation since the emergence of mass social media 15 years ago.

It said:

The US’s hallowed approach to the First Amendment, under which speech on public issues – even hate speech – occupies the highest rank and is entitled to special protection, has contributed to a reluctance to regulate Silicon Valley’s digital platforms. But the irony is that by not regulating them, the government harmed freedom of expression by leaving complex speech decisions in the hands of private actors.

Meanwhile at the other extreme is the growing number of illiberal and authoritarian governments using a combination of vague laws, censorship, propaganda, and internet blackouts to severely restrict online freedom of expression, control the narrative and, in some cases, incite atrocities.


It added:

The happy medium – flexible online content regulation providing clarity, predictability, transparency, and accountability – has until now been elusive. But even before the deplatforming of Trump, 2021 was set to be the year when this approach finally gained some traction, at least in Europe.

The EU’s recently-published draft Digital Services Act puts obligations on dominant social media platforms to manage ‘systemic risks’, for example through requirements for greater transparency about their content decisions, algorithms used for recommendations, and online advertising systems.

The UK will shortly publish its Online Safety Bill, which will establish a new regulatory framework for tackling online harms, including the imposition of a duty of care and codes of conduct on Big Tech, to be overseen by an independent regulator (Ofcom).

Both proposals are based on a ‘co-regulatory’ model under which the regulator sets out a framework substantiated with rules by the private sector, with the regulator performing a monitoring function to ensure the rules are complied with.

Both also draw on international human rights standards and the work of civil society in applying these standards in relation to the online public square, with the aim of increasing control for users over what they see online, requiring transparency about tech companies’ policies in a number of areas, and strengthening the accountability of platforms when they fall foul of the regulation.

The procedure for both proposals has also been inclusive, involving extensive multi-stakeholder consultations with civil society organizations and Big Tech, and the proposals will be subject to scrutiny in 2021, notably from the EU and UK parliaments.

Both proposals are at an early stage, and it remains to be seen whether they go far enough – or indeed will have a chilling effect on online platforms. But as an attempt to initiate a dialogue on globally coherent principles, they are positive first steps. They also provide food for thought for the new Joe Biden administration in the US as it turns its attention to the regulation of Big Tech.

For some time civil society – most prominently David Kaye, the former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion – have called for content regulation to be informed by universal international human rights law standards.

The EU and UK are peculiarly well-placed to take the lead in this area because European countries have for decades been on the receiving end of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights on the appropriate limits to freedom of expression in cases brought under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In deciding these cases, the court has to balance the right to freedom of expression against the restrictions imposed – for example in the context of incitement to violence, political debate, and satire. Deciding where to draw the line on what can and cannot be expressed in a civilized society which prizes freedom of expression is inevitably a difficult exercise.

International human rights law provides a methodology that inquires whether the interference to freedom of expression was prescribed by law and pursues a legitimate aim, and also whether it was necessary in a democratic society to achieve those aims – including whether the interference was necessary and proportionate (as for example in Delfi AS v Estonia, which involved a news portal failing to take down unlawful hate speech).

To be effective, online content regulation has to bite on tech companies, which is a challenge given the internet is global but domestic law normally applies territorially. The EU’s proposals have an extraterritorial element as they apply to any online platforms providing services in the EU regardless of where the platform is headquartered.

Further, both the EU and UK want to give the regulator strong enforcement powers – it is proposed for example that Ofcom will have powers to fine platforms up to ten per cent of their turnover for breaches.

Although the proposals would not apply directly to the deplatforming of Trump which occurred in the US, the philosophy behind the EU and UK approach is likely to have an impact beyond European shores in promoting a co-regulatory model that some of the bigger tech companies have been inviting for some time, reluctant as they are to ‘play God’ on content moderation decisions without reference to any regulatory framework.

In the absence of regulation, the standards of tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have already evolved over time in response to pressure from civil rights groups, users, and advertisers, including updated policies on protecting civic conversation and hate speech.

Facebook has also set up an independent Oversight Board, whose members include leading human rights lawyers, to review decisions on content including – at its own request – the decision to indefinitely suspend Trump from Facebook and Instagram. Decisions on the Board’s first tranche of cases are expected imminently.

Gatekeeper status

Online content regulation also needs to address the role of Big Tech as the ‘digital gatekeepers’, because their monopoly power extends not just to editorial control of the news and information we consume, but also to market access.

The decision of Apple, Google, and Amazon to stop hosting right-wing social network Parler after it refused to combat calls for violence during the US Capitol riots was understandable in the circumstances, but also underlined the unilateral ability of Big Tech to decide the rules of the market.

Again, it is Europe where efforts are underway to tackle this issue: the EU’s draft Digital Market Act imposes obligations on online gatekeepers to avoid certain unfair practices, and the UK’s new Digital Markets Unit will have powers to write and enforce a new code of practice on those technology companies with ‘substantial and enduring’ market power.

In the US, Biden’s team will be following these developments with interest, given the growing bipartisan support for strengthening US antitrust rules and reviving antitrust enforcement. The EU’s recently published proposals for an EU-US tech agenda include a transatlantic dialogue on the responsibility of tech platforms and strengthened cooperation between antitrust authorities on digital markets.

Ultimately a consistent – and global – approach to online content is needed instead of fragmented approaches by different companies and governments. It is also important the framework is flexible so that it is capable of applying not only to major democracies but also to countries where too often sweeping state regulation has been used as a pretext to curtail online expression online.

The report by Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, a world-leading policy institute, 2021, added:

The pursuit of a pluralistic framework tailored to different political and cultural contexts is challenging, and international human rights law cannot provide all the answers but, as a universal framework, it is a good place to start. The raft of regulatory measures from the EU and UK means that, regardless of whether Trump regains his online megaphone, 2021 is set to be a year of reckoning for Big Tech.


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