The Big Four: Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. The tech titans of these four global business firms faced the U.S. Congress in an unprecedented hearing related to Anti-Trust Laws.
In America, these anti-trust laws were enacted by Congress as a means to promote healthy competition, protect customers, and boost the nation’s economy. The leaders of the four tech companies are expected to provide their side and clarify how their firms operate without committing any anti-trust violation.
Based on news reports, the historic hearing covered issues directly related to antitrust laws such as digital monopoly. The heads of these giant corporations were also asked about allegations of alleged online censorship and possible threats to national security in relation to business with foreign clients such as China.
Power of Data and Information
These companies handle bits of information measured in billions of bytes. Users of their products provide information that are stored by these companies in a backroom or cloud storage. Ever so closely, the companies’ tech teams monitor high-capacity SQL server performance to ensure that information is gathered and kept securely for some future business use.
The database of these companies contains the name, age, birth date, and other personal and professional information given by their users when they registered or signed up. As such, enormous investments have also been made to protect the integrity of such a body of information.
Through data science and analytics, businesses are able to monitor customer behavior. This includes knowing what websites are visited by users; what products they buy and when they buy them; as well as places they go to. By knowing these and other information about customers, companies can customize or personalize advertisements in whatever application and platform are being used at the moment such as Facebook on a computer or tablet or Instagram on a smartphone.
How users of the platforms can exercise their rights to privacy is among the issues to be tackled in the hearings. One allegation that was mentioned during the hearing was that a search engine was used to “steal” content which destroyed the business of smaller firms who owned such content. It was also alleged that a certain search engine had the power to monitor and control web traffic, a capability that was used to outmaneuver business competitors.
As bestselling novelist Tom Clancy once wrote:
“Information and knowledge is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”
Are the Big Four so powerful that they can now actually control people and dominate the markets?
Another social and legal issue to be discussed during the hearing is the matter of Online Censorship. During the hearing, one of the committee members mentioned that there were complaints that a major social media platform was engaged in censorship, specifically targeting posts related to conservative political views.
The flagging of content online has become contentious. Concerns have been raised that this power to censor online interfered with people’s right to free speech and the benefits of open debate. The issue became so controversial that the White House responded with an Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship.
In business, some companies enter into mergers to consolidate their leadership, operations, and products; and even their financial and technological advantages. In some cases, however, mergers or acquisitions can undermine customers when these lead to a monopoly, higher prices, or a decrease in the quality of products and services. Antitrust laws seek to promote good market competition which ideally benefits customers through lower prices and an increase in product quality. A so-called monopolistic advantage is a violation of anti-trust laws.
These and other issues discussed during the hearing are indeed inter-related and complex. For this reason, the tech giants need to avail of the best legal advice from the top lawyers in the country. While the issues cannot be resolved in just one hearing, the proceedings were historic in the sense that regulatory and oversight powers had been imposed on the Big Four.
Global Business and National Security
Another interesting matter raised by the Congressmen was the allegation that a search engine company’s artificial intelligence program is being used by a foreign country. This situation, as the allegations say, will result in the theft of U.S. technology by countries that are not American allies.
It can be recalled that Microsoft was also charged and had been found guilty of antitrust violations. In 2001, the company signed a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
As technologies evolve and corporate giants stretch their financial muscles, it will be crucial for Congress to evaluate whether existing laws are sufficient to address loopholes or strong enough to prosecute violators of anti-trust laws.
The Big Four hearing is only but a beginning. But surely, the impact is already reverberating around the world.