Have Big Technology firms such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple have become Too Big To Care? With their businesses churning Billions in revenues and their stock prices at all time highs, are they “railroading” (this term has been used deliberately to refer to the parallels with the Gilded Age Robber Barons, who like Big Tech now, were known for riding roughshod over competitors) the small businesses and consumers alike in search of a monopolistic paradise where what they say goes.
While the United States has had good and bad experiences with monopolies and evolved as a nation believing in the “power of the free market”, the present situation is something that has few parallels in history. For instance, all Big Tech firms operate globally and hence, skirt around local laws unless challenged by specific country rules and regulations. Second, they pay little or zero taxes in the United States, having moved to Tax Havens and Offshore Entities which allow them to escape paying taxes in most of the countries they operate in. Third, as they give away most of their services for free, they often point to the “greater good” which their businesses actualize. So, if the Biden Administration is really serious about “reining in” Big Tech, it must do its homework right and then, proceed with vigor.
It is in this context that the appointment of Lina Khan as the head of the US Federal Trade Commission has to be hailed as an important step in the attempts to rein in Big Tech. With impeccable credentials and published papers targeting Big Tech, she has been one of the most harshest critics of Big Tech and with her new job at the FTC, it is more than likely that she would continue her “crusade”. Specifically, her paper on Antitrust practices at Amazon is worth a read for its nuanced “take down” of how Amazon misuses its market power and uses “consumer welfare” as a shield to pursue blatantly monopolistic business strategies.
As mentioned earlier, Big Tech has become Too Big to Care and despite any potential actions against them, they remain “smug” in their attitude towards governmental moves and are confident that they would prevail. This self belief is the outcome of them having too much power and too little accountability, and Lina Khan would have her work cut out if she has to take punitive actions against Big Tech firms. Already the introduction of five separate bills in the House of Representatives has been met with a “bald” response stating that any such moves against Big Tech would be unconstitutional.
So, this is more the reason for caution and adequate groundwork before any antitrust action aimed at Big Tech. However, this does not mean either the FTC or Congress should shy away from “reining in” Big Tech before it is “too late”. Already there are concerns over Facebook’s role in Election Interference, Google’s near total control over Search and News, and Amazon’s well known “stranglehold” over eCommerce retail. These and other reasons mentioned so far are enough for the FTC and the Biden Administration to act now or regret later.
Having said that, the FTC and its commissioners need to be “on the same page or pixel” in proceeding against Big Tech. Moreover, there is no substitute for Congressional Action as far as the legal and executive sanctions for Antitrust actions are concerned. In addition, there has to be a broader coalition against Big Tech and the formation of a wider consumer led base to take on some of its monopolistic tendencies. So, in effect, while Lina Khan is the best person for the job, she should not wage a “lone wolf battle” and it is only through concerted, coordinated, and cohesive action that Big Tech can be reined in.
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