Last Wednesday, a British firm released emails exchanged between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook staff which reflect potentially damaging privacy practices. The emails were uncovered as a part of the ongoing US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation into Facebook’s potential breach of privacy laws during the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This new development comes amidst the US Federal authorities laying the groundwork for ensuring regulations against the market threat posed by technology giants Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google. Earlier this month, the US House Judiciary Committee announced a sweeping antitrust probe which promised “a top-to-bottom review of the market power held by giant tech platforms,” the likes of which Congress has never undertaken.
The deal between the FTC and US Justice Department amkes the former in charge of antitrust investigations into Facebook. The arrangement permits the Justice Department to investigate Google while handing over Facebook and Amazon to the FTC. Both the FTC and the Justice Department have the authority to enforce antitrust laws, but they work out agreements to distribute investigative authority over specific companies. The pressure has been mounting on the US government to scrutinise these companies with growing backlash among consumers and politicians against the tech companies’ monopolistic reach and power.
The shares of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple dropped significantly after reports suggested future investigations into anti-competitive behaviour by several of these tech giants. Facebook’s stock dropped by 7.5 per cent, Google’s share of its parent company Alphabet fell by 6.1 per cent, Amazon declined 4.6 per cent and Apple fell 1 per cent. “Unwarranted, concentrated economic power in the hands of a few is dangerous to democracy–especially when digital platforms control content," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted, adding "The era of self-regulation is over.” The recent acquisition of the potentially incriminating company emails has led to Facebook’s shares dropping an additional 2 per cent this week.
However, while investors may have reacted immediately to the possible clamp down of these companies, in reality the investigations—if any materialise—would take years. “I think (the speculation) is becoming more real, but antitrust is not a 24-hour event,” said Blair Levin, former chief of staff to a Federal Communications chairman. He said that while the government is paying more attention to the practices of big tech companies, the outcomes could take many different forms. The most likely would be regulation of the companies’ various practices including changes in privacy policies. Sandeep Vaheesan, legal director for Open Markets Institute which fights against monopolies said, “There’s still a long way to go before there is even an investigation,” further stating “And an investigation could be an extended process.”
Technology writer, April Glaser, argues that while the argument for a successful challenge based on US antitrust laws and Facebook breach of it could be a longer, harder track to pursue, with pressure from enough lawmakers and federal agencies it is a possibility in pursuing for the breakup of Facebook. Authors Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Thomas Range say that antitrust laws fail to protect the market except against cases of egregious abuse in the current scenario. The monopoly by few firms over the market have made competition almost null, making it harder for the market to self-regulate and be a fairer system–and easier for tech superpowers to manipulate the market place without clearly breaking antitrust laws.
The European regulations are a model that the US could potentially follow albeit it designs it to suit the political motivations and laws unique to it. Currently, the US regulations have failed to keep up with the fast-moving world of the tech industry. “After four decades of weak antitrust enforcement and judicial hostility to antitrust cases, it is vital for Congress to step in to determine whether existing laws are adequate to tackle abusive conduct by platform gatekeepers or if we need new legislation," said Representative David Cicilline, who chairs the panel’s antitrust subcommittee.
Looking at its previous track record, Facebook clearly hasn’t done an efficient job of dealing with the disinformation and misinformation that spreads on its platform or protecting its consumers from data breaches. There is an increasing urgency for some kind of regulatory crackdown, like new data-privacy laws. With the first US Democratic debates underway, the candidates have a limited window before they are asked on-stage point-blank whether they agree with former Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes call to break up Facebook.
The House probe is a step forward as it has the backing of the Republicans as well as Democrats which is potentially worrisome for the tech firms. "As tech has expanded its market share, more and more questions have arisen about whether the market remains competitive," said Georgia Representaive Doug Collins, the top Republican lawmaker on the Judiciary Committee. "Our bipartisan look at competition in the digital markets gives us the chance to answer these questions and, if necessary, to take action."
The rise of the unregulated monopoly of big tech giants and its effects on the state of democracy will not just be an important question in the upcoming US 2020 elections but also impact the way the rest of the world engineers regulations on big tech companies. The new antitrust scrutiny imposed on Facebook is unlikely to cause a breakup of the tech giant, with the government only likely to press a case it’s sure to win. This is still a welcome move as increased federal scrutiny of the company’s practices in online advertising, internet search and supplier contracts could lead to pressure towards making changes aimed at increasing competition.