It's About Time for a Big Tech Reckoning

They've enjoyed political complacency for far too long.

[From left to right] Tim Cook at the Austin Community College in 2017, Jeff Bezos at the 2005 O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, Mark Zuckerberg at TechCrunch Disrupt 2012, Sundar Pichai at the Łazienki Park in Warsaw, Poland. Courtesy of Flickr by ACC, Kancelaria Premiera, James Duncan Davison and JD Lasica respectively. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

When power is consolidated among entities that are not accountable to democratic institutions, the outcomes are sure to be catastrophic. Big Tech’s outsized influence has long been a topic of indifference where legislative bodies — both conservative and liberal — saw them as harbingers of great boons to society, not realizing that tech imparts upon its own biases, and in this particular moment in history, they’ve been largely misaligned with the public’s best interest.

To that end, American legislature saw fit to have top executives from the Big Four testify under oath about all that has propelled them beyond reproach–anti-competitive behavior is just the tip of the iceberg here. The air of neutrality that Big Tech often likes to project is perhaps an accidental side-effect of their many technologies being so opaque to outside observers–but just because they’re sometimes just as unknowable to legislators as they are to the very engineers making those products, doesn’t mean they’re not to uphold a sense of civil responsibility when conceiving them; especially when the purported goal is the greater good.

But to understand first how Big Tech got here, a tally of their greatest sins is in order. Amazon utilized their massive market share in the online shopping space to goad producers into selling on their platform, only to undercut them by selling in-house clones at a much cheaper price, effectively putting any competition with not-deep-enough pockets out of business; Google used its indexing technology to farm information from competing products to bolster their own and promote them higher on search results; Facebook has given great power to misinformation that is both perilous to public health and safety, and undermining of global democracy; and Apple is denying competitors an even playing field by bundling services with hardware, while actively making it harder for them to justify staying on the App Store.

There’s a whole lot more that the above paragraph fails to mention, but it all follows a single clear pattern–any entity with the potential to threaten their status is to be neutralized, and that includes governmental bodies. Per leaked audio from an internal Facebook staff meeting, Mark Zuckerberg vowed to “go to the mat and fight” with Elizabeth Warren when she expressed her interest in invoking antitrust doctrine against Big Tech, and it’s unlikely that his analogues would be opposed to the idea–those pushing for favorable treatment on behalf of Big Tech in Washington are not a sparse count.

In the early aughts, the story Big Tech liked to tell about itself is that of individual strife where garage-bound founders worked tirelessly to make a barely-functioning product so that they may stand a chance challenging the established old guard. Now that Big Tech has overshot its erstwhile competition, it wants to preserve its newly-earned status of ubiquity for as long as it can–that American legislature is among the very few entities that can hold this behemoth industry to account should be most-worrisome.

With an atmosphere of unrest brewing outside as a global pandemic came to expose society’s warts where inequality is most-defining of one’s access to safe harbor and basic necessities, it is a moral obscenity that Big Tech continues to peddle a line of neutrality when ruin seems to be all they leave behind. “With both control of [online] economies and privileged access to their workings, these platforms have a golden opportunity to join the economy they created, and compete within it. Inevitably, the quest for growth drives them to do so,” says OneZero’s Will Oremus. “Without stronger antitrust regulation of platforms, their owners will always have incentive to dip into and siphon off for themselves the most profitable elements of the economies they control.”

That our realities have come to be defined by what private companies make is troublesome, and it’s a travesty that they get to chart so much of what the internet looks like, and not the government which is at least beholden to deliver what its constituents have elected them for. While the democratic process is still flawed in the world’s many recesses, it’s nowhere near evading of scrutiny as private companies who’ve until very recently answered to no one regarding their many missteps. Whether it’s the mass of displaced Rohingya from Myanmar, climate refugees who are indirectly impacted by Big Tech’s dealings with the oil and gas industry, the content moderators working starvation wages as they binge content of utmost brutality, or Amazon warehouse workers that are treated like dispensable cattle; the tech industry has long amassed its power on the back of great suffering.

“A pillar of capitalism is you can’t reward the winners without punishing the losers,” says NYU’s Scott Galloway. “I worry our government has been co-opted by the wealthy and is focused on protecting the previous generation of winners, even if it means reducing future generations’ ability to win. Aren’t we borrowing against our children’s prosperity to protect the wealth of the top 10, if not 1, percent?”

If it is indeed capitalism that gave way to Big Tech’s current status, perhaps no action within its purview will ever be sufficient to counter its influence barring a more radical approach. One way to do that would be to subsume them into the government–much like how some other countries have taken over crucial sectors to ensure their operation isn’t privileging shareholders over people, the American government can just nationalize what it deems ubiquitous enough, letting Big Tech war over the less-consequential parts of their business.

Solutions will differ depending on perspective, but what the Big Tech hearing has at least successfully accomplished, is it proved that when legislature does the work and studies the problem they’re tasked to solve, they inch ever-closer to containing the threat that has become tech oligarchy. What’s left is to see whether this will culminate into some concrete action in the future–precedent suggests it will, but things are far too uncertain to tell for sure.