You have to hand it to Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. They’ve accomplished something nearly impossible — getting Democrats and Republicans to agree on something. Leaders in both major parties want to rein in or even break up the companies, albeit for some very different reasons. Standing in the way are antiquated antitrust laws in desperate need of an update.
The U.S. Department of Justice last week announced that it will investigate whether these major tech companies have become too big and too powerful.
One would be hard pressed to argue that competition hasn’t suffered under the behemoths. Upstarts that pose a small threat may wind up bought out and assimilated. What social media could challenge Facebook’s 2.4 billion monthly users? Instagram? Facebook bought it.
Republicans claim that the big tech companies control the major venues for online speech and silence conservative voices. Democrats claim that they are stifling innovation and harming workers. Members of both parties worry that they are gobbling up people’s private information and using it for who knows what.
Some of those claims are stronger than others, but whatever one thinks of them, there’s no denying that regulators need to take a serious look at whether consumers are being harmed. Facebook’s $5 billion settlement over consumer privacy says yes.
The Justice Department investigation (run by the Republican Trump administration) and House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust hearings are good starts, so long as they remain objective, not fixated on partisan narratives.
One challenge is whether antitrust laws are up to the task. The laws were originally designed to deal with railroads, not complex tech conglomerates.
Whether Congress is able to rewrite antitrust laws for the 21st century remains to be seen. Senators and representatives, it is fair to say, don’t always demonstrate cultural and technological nimbleness. Many West Coast lawmakers, such as Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, who worked for Microsoft before running for office, are keyed into the industry. They must help their colleagues better understand the complex issues and write laws that will protect consumers and encourage a modern, healthy marketplace.