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An illustration picture taken in London on December 18, 2020 shows the logos of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft displayed on a mobile phone and a laptop screen. (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

The Big Tech Antitrust Battle Is A Fight For Democracy

There's a serious possibility that Big Tech's scorched Earth campaign to stop anything akin to real industry oversight or reform will end up working.

Aidan Smith

“We must make our choice… We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

This quote, reportedly spoken by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a personal conversation, rings truer than ever in the United States of 2022. Unsustainable levels of extreme corporate concentration have reduced workers' bargaining power while tilting the policy-making process further in the favor of monied interests. Nowhere is this more evident than in the technology sector, where the "Big Tech" quadrumvirate of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple wield power that would make the robber barons of 1890 blush.

Americans of all backgrounds are waking up to the fact Big Tech's monopoly power has proven disastrous for consumers and competitors. But on an even deeper level, the unaccountable levels of power these four giants wield poses a very threat to democracy itself. Even putting aside the role of platforms like Facebook in helping facilitate the January 6 insurrection in 2021, the extreme lengths to which these companies have fought accountability are indicative of a deeper crisis facing American democracy.

The "Big Tech" quadrumvirate of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple wield power that would make the robber barons of 1890 blush.

It's well-documented that money in politics corrupts the democratic process. A 2021 working paper by the American Economic Liberties Project linked monopoly power in a specific sector to said industry having a more powerful lobbying presence. In other words, when an industry becomes dominated by a few corporate giants, it tends to result in that industry having more influence on elected officials. This is illustrated well in the battle to rein in Big Tech, where industry interests threaten to triumph over the American people's clear desire for stronger regulations and accountability.

In Congress, a bipartisan coalition is working to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO), an antitrust bill that would prevent Big Tech from unfairly self-preferencing their own products. In addition to being supported by a wide coalition of U.S. senators across party lines, it's also favored by Americans across party lines. As documented in a recent memo by Tufts University political scientist Brian F. Schaffner, this bill and the broader movement to rein in Big Tech has overwhelming popular support among liberals and conservatives, a rarity in today's polarized environment.

Unfortunately, there's a serious possibility that Big Tech’s scorched Earth campaign to stop the bill will end up working. Fearing that Congress will finally put in place basic accountability measures, Big Tech interests have launched a historic spending blitz to crush AICO, spending at least $36 million as of June 9. The fact of the matter is that AICO has the votes to pass the Senate if put up for a floor vote, and Big Tech knows it. Industry allies are banking on Democratic leadership being too busy dealing with other issues to prioritize the passage of AICO and the related Open App Markets Act (OAMA) before Congress goes to recess in August.

Big Tech’s attempts to sabotage the work of government institutions extend well past its campaign to spend away its antitrust troubles in Congress. Indeed, Big Tech has worked tirelessly to sabotage the work of regulators looking to hold them accountable. Since coming into office, President Joe Biden has chosen strong antitrust advocates for key roles, namely Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Jonathan Kanter at the Department of Justice Antitrust Division.

Both Khan and Kanter possess impeccable legal talent and a steadfast commitment to the public interest. Unsurprisingly, their nominations were met with overwhelming bipartisan fanfare in the Senate, which entrusted them to perform the duties of their office. Since taking office, Big Tech has waged an all-out-war against them, mounting frivolous campaigns for recusal to bully them into submission.

In the last year, both Amazon and Facebook have demanded Khan recuse herself from antitrust scrutiny of both companies. Her supposed offense? Being a critic of their anti-competitive behavior. Google has engaged in a similar bullying campaign against Kanter, arguing that his past work for its rivals would somehow present a conflict of interest in the federal government's scrutiny of Google.

As noted by Laurence Tribe, arguably America’s preeminent constitutional scholar, Kanter's "commitment to aggressive antitrust enforcement, far from compromising the legitimacy of his actions, reinforces his qualifications for doing his job." Unfortunately, as it stands, Google's bad-faith campaign against Kanter has led to him being at least temporarily barred from participating in scrutiny of the company. This is a clear example of a massive corporation leveraging its influence to sabotage the work of a Senate-confirmed appointee of a democratically-elected president.

Overseas, Big Tech has been just as vigilant about sabotaging the affairs of governments in democratic states. After being found to engage in anti-competitive behavior in the Netherlands, Apple chose to take €5 million in weekly fines for 10 weeks straight rather than adhere to Dutch law. (In June, the company finally came to an agreement with the Dutch government, some five months after the saga began.)

After Australia passed a law to mandate Big Tech firms treat publishers fairly, Facebook didn't just complain: They "deliberately caused havoc" to punish the country, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that the company "took down the pages of Australian hospitals, emergency services and charities" to punish the country.

If a corporation is so large that it can engage in a one-company capital strike to cause chaos in a country working to hold them accountable, it's not just a monopoly: It's a threat to the very foundations of democracy.

 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Aidan Smith

Aidan Smith is a Senior Advisor at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank. His research focuses on issue areas such as federal personnel, competition policy, and automatic voter registration.

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