While many of these developments have unfolded at a rapid pace in recent weeks, the desire to rein in Big Tech is not new. For years, governments have been grappling with the massive amount of influence these companies have over the online economy and the flow of ever-more valuable digital information.
But huge antitrust fines, onerous data protection laws and interminable Congressional hearings have failed to bring tech companies to heel, and politicians are now signaling that they want to do more to prevent market abuse and an explosion of harmful online content and misinformation.
Advancements in computing, data storage and global digital connectivity enabled major tech firms to balloon in size, said Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. Now, a handful of those companies have developed sophisticated artificial intelligence systems that have granted them an unprecedented amount of control over content, advertising and personal data.
While this global regulatory crackdown appears to be unfolding all at once, analysts note that each of the world’s major powers have their own — and at times, competing — reasons for expanding their oversight of the tech industry.
The United States and Europe have directed their efforts on curtailing the power of America’s most powerful firms. But in China, where Google and Facebook have been locked out of the market for years, authorities are looking for ways to exercise tighter control over their own tech behemoths.
A flood of lawsuits in the United States
The US government has been scrutinizing Big Tech for a while.
While the US-led crackdown has targeted these companies on antitrust grounds, the pressure comes amid broader questioning about their impact on democracy and the flow of information online. Misinformation and allegations of bias were at the forefront of concerns about the recent US election.
“I think basically, what you’re seeing … is essentially a question of who controls this information, and consequently, access to the electorate,” said Michael Witt, a senior affiliate professor of strategy and international business at INSEAD, the international business school.
It’s tough to predict how these cases will be resolved. Some of the arguments the US government is now trying to make — including that Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and Whatsapp have allowed it to snuff out competition — may not stick, since those acquisitions were cleared by authorities years ago.
“The government now wants a do-over, sending a chilling warning to American business that no sale is ever final,” Facebook Vice President and General Counsel Jennifer Newstead said in a statement earlier this month.
And analysts have pointed out that the United States may not be willing to apply other forms of pressure, such as new legislation, on the tech industry.
America probably will not want to enforce antitrust rules at the expense of losing its grip on the flow of information in many other parts of the world, Witt said, referring to the large amount of power Silicon Valley’s tech giants have in Europe and elsewhere.
“I think there will be considerable resistance to any kind of attempt to somehow do anything that could actually take away this advantage for the United States,” he added.
Striking a balance in Europe
The United Kingdom, which left the European Union earlier this year, has its own plans. Tech companies that fail to remove or limit the spread of illegal content will face fines of up to 10% of their annual sales.
“I’m unashamedly pro tech but that can’t mean a tech free-for-all,” UK Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said in a statement earlier this month. “We are entering a new age of accountability for tech to protect children and vulnerable users, to restore trust in this industry, and to enshrine in law safeguards for free speech.”
Witt of INSEAD noted that there’s strong political support across Europe for taking some kind of action. But he added that Europe’s options are somewhat limited. After all, the tech companies in the European Union’s cross hairs are all based in the United States.
“I think they will be taking a bit of time, trying to come up with something that is, on the one hand, legally watertight,” he added. “And then on the other hand, something that does not annoy the United States.”
Maintaining control in China
Beijing has not missed out on the push for more regulatory action, though the country has been on a very different path to the West in terms of its tech industry.
“In China, you are dealing with a different set of players that are homegrown,” said Nathan Bush, the head of antitrust and competition for Asia at the law firm DLA Piper.
“Chinese competition regulators are going to be confronting the same sorts of questions that they see in the rest of the world, but it’s a different cast, and you’ve effectively factored out any concerns about foreign investment and market access, because the door is already shut,” Bush added.
The country’s top political leaders have called out antitrust concerns as a big issue headed into 2021. At a Dec. 11 meeting, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party — the top decision-making body — pledged to promote reform, “strengthen antitrust and prevent disorderly expansion of capital.”
Bush and others also noted that China’s central government has a lot of tools aside from conventional competition law if it wants to keep its tech companies in check.
“The options are, in the end, endless,” Witt said. “The objective is not necessarily to increase competition in different fields. The objective is to make sure that the [Chinese Communist Party] stays in power.”