This week, the antitrust craze in Washington reached its peak. Legislators will roast the top executives of the four largest technology companies in the United States. This is expected to become a rare political scene in the digital age.
At the showdown in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, there are growing concerns about the dominance of big technology, and this advantage is even more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic.
The unprecedented joint appearance of the House Judiciary Committee will include Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and its parent company Alphabet. Everyone will testify remotely.
The hearing was part of an investigation into “online platforms and market forces,” when US federal agencies and states conducted their own investigations.
“This is an antitrust Super Bowl,” said Avery Gardner, an antitrust expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
She said the hearing provides a timely way to focus on key issues related to competition and concentration of economic power.
She said: “People are frustrated with the way our society is organized, and antitrust is a tool for chasing powerful companies.”
However, the current US antitrust laws make it difficult for law enforcement officials to target companies simply because of their size or dominance, without causing harm to consumers or abusing market power.
Therefore, “the real purpose of the hearing is dramatic and closely related to the electoral interests of politicians,” said Christopher Suggs, an antitrust law professor at Cleveland State University.
Eric Goldman, director of the High-Tech Law Institute of Santa Clara University, said that politicians have seen the benefits of attacking technology companies and, ironically, “they will look for viral YouTube time.”
The hearing was conducted in the context of an ongoing antitrust investigation, involving the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and law enforcement agencies in almost all states, as well as authorities in Europe and elsewhere.
However, on a range of issues ranging from privacy to economic inequality, more and more “technical conflicts” have plunged the antitrust debate into chaos.
President Donald Trump has claimed that the social media giant is facing an attack because of its prejudice against conservatives and is suspected of using its dominance to stifle freedom of speech.
Other activists believe that Facebook has failed to contain hate-inciting violence, including Trump’s violence.
Suggs believes that any effort to use antitrust laws to enforce freedom of speech will arouse constitutional attention, thereby exacerbating the worries of “government inspectors.”
Gardiner said: “I worry that members of Congress will have a hard time adhering to antitrust laws. We will hear about privacy, content control, and workers’ conditions.”
“These are important questions, but they have nothing to do with antitrust.”
Saggs believes that Facebook may be censored for acquiring new competitors. Critics claim that Facebook is extremely competitive and has increased its dominance on social media.
Smaller competitors have long complained about the difficulty of competing with the giants: Yelp believes that Google prefers its own website and downgrades its competitors’ review services; Spotify said that Apple Music has an unfair advantage on the iPhone manufacturer’s platform.
The slow wheel of change
Experts say that based on existing laws and precedents, only limited remedies can solve the dominance of technology platforms.
However, given the chaotic political landscape and the slow action of Congress, it is impossible to quickly amend the antitrust law.
Gardner said that antitrust enforcement agents face a difficult task because “it is not illegal to be bigger.”
She said that investigators must identify “abuse of market power” that is difficult to define.
Even then, due to the benefits of a large-scale technology platform, it may still be difficult to formulate remedies for the public interest.
Gardiner said: “You don’t want to view photos of your kids on Halloween on 11 different social media sites.”
“It’s good to have more people on the platform.”
However, Gardena believes that there is a high probability that there will be at least one antitrust lawsuit this year, although “I expect it will take at least three years to reach a settlement.”
Charlotte Slyman of the consumer non-profit organization “Public Knowledge” said: “Antitrust laws are not the only tool to solve all the thorny problems of the platform.”
“The best solution is to create a new digital platform-centric organization to manage the platform. Since antitrust itself cannot do enough to expand competition and innovation, such an organization is needed to control the potential abuse of the dominant platform. “