In the United States, a war is being waged against "Big Tech" - a term that refers to the biggest technology companies in the world. They are also sometimes referred to as the "Big Five" and include Microsoft, Meta (Facebook), Amazon, Apple and Alphabet (Google). They are the dominant players in their technology market niche across the globe. As their influence only grows larger, lawmakers across the world are increasingly concerned about the monopolistic traits they exhibit such as squashing potential competition and employing a "winner-take-all" approach.
This article will briefly explore the US antitrust laws already in place before providing examples of the monopolies currently held by the Big Five tech firms. Finally, the article will look at what has already been done to curb their behaviour and discuss what may come next.
A Brief Overview of Antitrust Laws
Historically, the United States has taken a strict approach in dealing with monopolies, as seen with the late-1800s railroad crackdown. The anti-monopolists of the 19th Century called for more federal regulation on the railroads to achieve equality and maintain fair rules across the railway system. Following the railway controversy came a series of antitrust laws, including the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 and the Federal Trade Commission of 1914. According to the Sherman Act of 1890:
"Every person who shall monopolise, or attempt to monopolise, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolise any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor…"
The Sherman Act was criticised for being vague so the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 was more specific by outlining specific prohibited conduct and creating a more substantial enforcement scheme. The Federal Trade Commission of 1914 outlawed unfair methods of competition and practices that affect commerce.
Big Tech and the Monopolies they Hold
Amazon, a global online superstore and member of the "Big Five", has come under fire due to the use of self-preferencing to highlight their own products over other companies who sell through the site. Amazon Web Services accounts for 33 percent of global cloud computing services and, much like its parent organisation, has come under fire for unfair business practices and stifling potential competition.
Google and Facebook are both facing lawsuits from the Federal Trade Commission over blatant violations of monopoly and antitrust laws. According to a lawsuit brought against Google to the Department of Justice in October 2021, the company has entered into a series of exclusionary agreements that unfairly block competition. They pay device manufacturers billions every year to maintain status as the default search engine. On the other hand, Facebook is facing charges due to their practice of surveilling developers and then crushing them when they become threats. Despite ignoring fair business practices, the cases against them have been struggling since the antitrust laws do not have clear provisions for tech monopolies.
The recent weaponisation of media platforms such as Facebook to further political agendas and the subsequent questioning of free speech and censorship has only added fuel to the inferno. Years of criticism and negative press have shined a spotlight on these organizations and have brought the fight to a head, leaving many to wonder if 2022 is the year for curbing their behaviour.
Big Tech in Congress
Lawmakers find themselves in a time crunch as they need to get this legislation in motion prior to the kick-off the 2022 midterm season. Analysts are anticipating a big shake-up in Congress which could halt any push to regulate big tech. These antitrust proposals have broad bipartisan support and the backing of the Biden administration. Furthermore, renewed anger towards the harmful business practices of these firms by lawmakers has the potential to increase momentum enough to push these bills forward. While the support for doing something about these firms is there, there is disagreement from each party on what that should be - Democrats favour a more heavy-handed attack while Republicans wish to take a milder approach.
At the end of January 2022, the Senate Judiciary Committee met and approved an antitrust bill aimed at maintaining fair competition and business practices. The bill would prohibit tech firms from "self-preferencing" their own goods and services, as seen in the aforementioned example. The Republican Senator of Texas Ted Cruz was a vocal supporter of the bill, saying it would prohibit excessive censorship and reduce the amount of moderation of content done by media companies. This bill, as stated by Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is the updated version of the Gilded Age Antitrust Acts as the current ones are not sufficient to fill the needs of the digital age.
Now that the momentum has picked up, regulators have to consider each new bill carefully as there could come a point where they try to apply something too broadly and end up hurting smaller tech companies who would be unable to shoulder the new burden the way a big tech firm could. While the bill has passed in the Senate Committee, it now faces a steeper challenge in the rest of the Senate where it needs 60 members to support it. Similarly, in the House it requires a big enough majority for it to pass. Despite the limited time frame and the daunting task of garnering enough support, the conditions are right for 2022 to be the year of the Big Tech takedown.