If 2021 had a battle cry for US lawmakers to take on the world’s biggest tech companies, it would be this: “The legislation is coming.”
This year, lawmakers have gone beyond the simple grid of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, collectively known as Big Tech.
They introduced a new bill. New bills currently before the US Congress include measures to address a wide range of concerns – from anti-competitive behavior to the mental health impact of using social media and the spread of misinformation on social media. online platforms.
“I think Big Tech today represents the greatest build-up of power, market power and monopoly power the world has ever seen,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said in a congressional hearing in April.
While that’s no guarantee that the bills will pass in 2022, the stage is set for a massive change in the Big Tech regulatory landscape.
Additionally, US President Joe Biden has made it clear his administration will hold tech companies to account, with an executive order directing federal agencies to enforce a level playing field.
Antitrust bills presented to Congress this year will be the subject of intense debate next year. Lawmakers are likely to focus on efforts to narrow the reach of big tech companies and reform the country’s fair competition laws.
“I think a lot of things have merged this year,” said Eleanor Fox, an antitrust professor at New York University. “There is a real question of whether things will change next year, and that is whether we are getting any closer and closer to truly harnessing Big Tech and controlling their abuses in the United States.”
Lawmakers say these abuses include “murderous acquisitions” or the practice of buying out rivals in order to crush competition. Online platforms have also been criticized for promoting their own content or products when hosted on their sites.
“Antitrust laws are very weak”
“Our antitrust laws are very weak,” Fox said, noting that a key piece of the new legislation would shift the burden of proof from governments to big tech companies when it comes to justifying that their mergers do not harm. to competition.
Lawmakers cited Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp as an example of monopoly behavior.
Democratic Senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, introduced a bill to increase the budgets of federal agencies responsible for enforcing fair competition rules.
“Our economy today faces a huge competition problem. We can no longer sweep this problem under the carpet and hope that our existing laws are adequate,” Klobuchar said in a statement in February.
Biden’s back-to-back moves this year also signaled his administration’s intention to crack down on Big Tech.
In June, Biden appointed Lina Khan, a well-known Silicon Valley critic and 32-year-old associate professor of law at Columbia University in New York, as head of the Federal Trade Commission.
Soon after, he signed an executive order that echoed many of the issues raised in new bills before Congress regarding fair competition. He also made another important appointment, choosing Jonathan Kanter, another Big Tech critic, to head the antitrust division of the US Department of Justice.
“Capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It is exploitation,” Biden said in July.
While there has been bipartisan support for these measures, Democrats and Republicans still disagree on how to create a competitive and fair landscape for consumers and businesses in the digital age.
Tech executives have also repeatedly defended their practices, even though they have declared themselves open to rewriting some of the rules that govern their industry.
“There are a number of bipartisan bills currently in existence. It is possible that one or two of them will pass. It is also possible that nothing will happen,” Fox said. “The US Congress is in disarray. And it’s very difficult to predict what will have legs.”
In 2021, legislators and lawyers have finally acquired information and expertise around Big Tech practices, after years of hearings and investigations.
Congress won’t be the only arena where Big Tech faces battles. Significant lawsuits have been filed against Facebook, Google, and Amazon, with some calling for the companies to be dissolved.
“Not very robust”
“We have to control their power. And the law as it is now is not very strong in controlling their power,” Fox said.
The other big push for Congress in regulating Big Tech will be content moderation and censorship. In March, tech executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter were asked in Congress about the role their platforms may have played in fueling the January 6 Capitol uprising in Washington, DC.
“Do you bear some responsibility for what happened,” said Democratic Representative Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania during the hearing.
Everyone dodged by giving a simple yes or no answer.
“Our responsibility is to make sure we build systems efficiently,” said Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. CEOs said they take some responsibility for toxic content on their sites, but insisted that neither their companies nor the government should control what people post.
Lawmakers on both sides disagree.
“The days of self-regulation are over,” said Democratic Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey.
In June, a Republican senator introduced a bill to implement and modernize Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Critics at Big Tech have called the law obsolete, allowing companies like Facebook and Twitter to wash their hands of content on their sites.
“Big tech has destroyed countless reputations of Americans, openly interfered with our elections by banning reporting and baselessly censored important topics like the origins of the coronavirus,” said Republican Senator Marc Rubio of Florida .
Republicans have slammed social media companies for censoring conservative views. Both sides also criticized the impact on adolescent mental health using social media platforms, especially Instagram.
Several bills introduced in Congress cover a wide range of issues, from how tech companies collect data, to the online safety of minors to whistleblower protection.
In October, Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee turned whistleblower, testified before Congress.
“Facebook products hurt children, fuel division and weaken democracy,” said Haugen, data engineer and former product manager for the social media company.
She described a company that prioritizes profit over public safety, with a CEO who is accountable to no one. Haugen has provided a wealth of leaked documents which she says support her claims.
Zuckerberg has championed his company’s business practices to his employees.
“I think most of us just don’t recognize the false corporate image that is painted,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “I am proud of everything we do to continue to create the best social products in the world.”
The whistleblower has testified on several occasions
Haugen has since been called repeatedly by Congress to testify on reforming Section 230, the rules that protect online platforms from liability for third-party content on their sites.
“I think what Frances Haugen did was heroic,” said Marc Berkman, CEO of Organization for Social Media Safety, a California-based advocacy group that works to keep children safe online. “I think shedding light on these dangers will keep families safe.”
As the public becomes increasingly concerned about the impact of social media use on children and teens, Instagram has announced the planned launch of a children’s version of its platform.
Berkman said his non-profit organization’s work has intensified in recent years, both to try to protect children online and to ensure parents are properly informed of what their children are exposed to on the web. social networks.
“I think legislation is a vital piece of the security puzzle here. So if we don’t see legislation more people will be injured,” he said.
In Europe, lawmakers have just approved a comprehensive set of laws called the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, considered by many to be the toughest rulebook to hit online platforms since their meteoric rise.
The new rules cover a wide range of issues, from limiting the marketing power of technologies to the constraints of better controlling the content of their sites. The regulation could be adopted next year.
The EU is ahead of other countries, including the United States, where many of the proposed laws are still being debated.
“The whole world understands Big Tech abuse and tries to control it in various ways,” Fox said.
“A huge problem is that Big Tech is global, there is no doubt about that. And the laws we are talking about are only national. Big Tech has a great chance of pitting nations against each other.”