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Antitrust & Digital Democracy

By Gus Rossi, Director of Responsible Technology, and Ellen Jacobs, Programs Associate

A shadowy figure (social media) looms over a young teen looking into a computer screen that illuminates harmful content.
Illustration by Studio J Lorne (Krystie Mariano and Jason Lorne Giles)

A handful of tech monopolies have disproportionate power over our information ecosystem. Facebook and Google have been negligent stewards of this power, opting to promote harmful content that maximizes user engagement and then turn to ads, instead of trustworthy information. In the process, they have eviscerated independent media, contributed to dividing our country, made the pandemic even worse, and sickened teenage girls.

This is an entirely unfortunate but foreseeable state of affairs considering their monopoly power. There are three specific reasons why Google and Facebook’s monopoly power enables their socially harmful behavior.

First, monopolies can offer poor services without losing consumers. Research has shown that disinformation on Facebook got even worse after 2016, and that despite public concern YouTubekeeps promoting harmful content. This is because social media services such as Facebook and YouTube gain more value as more people use them — after all, who would want to be on a platform where no other users or user-generated content are. Thus for consumers leaving the platform becomes hard and almost irrational, and the platform operator can afford to center its efforts on maximizing revenue at the expense of consumer and societal well-being.

Second, Monopolies can wait out public pressure, changing their practices only for as long as they have a spotlight shining over their sins. Google and Facebook have mastered the art of committing to doing better for just as long as people are paying attention, just like when Facebook rebranded to Meta as Frances Haugen’s revelations were coming out. Or, when in response to calls for increased accountability, Facebook announced an Oversight Board governed by trustees chosen by Facebook’s leadership and, most importantly, with no binding mechanisms available to implement its decisions. Monopolies know that once the public attention goes away, they can resume their practices with virtually no changes.

These tech monopolies can also afford to lobby their problems away and push back against regulatory change. Google has consistently been among the largest lobbyists in DC in terms of money spent, topping the charts in 2018 when with $21.7 million it outspent Boeing and AT&T. This astronomical amount spent on lobbying has in part enabled Google (and the rest of Big Tech) to remain unregulated. More recently, in response to the strong bipartisan support in passing two pieces of antitrust legislation out of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, Google and Apple sent its top executives, Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook respectively, to lobby against these bills on the Hill. This signaled real concern from the platforms over how these bills would change the way Big Tech can operate.

Antitrust exists precisely to counter monopoly power for the public interest. In the words of Sen. John Sherman, one of the fathers of American antitrust law, “If the concentrated powers of [a] combination are entrusted to a single man, it is a kingly prerogative, inconsistent with our form of government. … If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of the necessities of life.” Antitrust is therefore a critical tool for rebalancing our information ecosystem, limiting the monopoly power of our digital information overlords. Here’s how antitrust can be a useful tool to defend our digital democracies.

First, tech monopolies should not be allowed to expand their information control by acquiring adjacent products or potential competitors. When Facebook bought WhatsApp and Instagram, or when Google acquired Youtube, they were not only consolidating their market power, they were also extending their information control and content amplification philosophy to new customers. As revealed by Frances Haugen and the Wall Street Journal, it’s sad but not surprising that Facebook researchers knew the physical and mental health harms Instagram caused in teenage girls and did nothing to prevent them. A handful of unaccountable companies should not be able to centralize what information we consume and how.

Second, the constant degradation in the quality of the information presented in social media monopolies should be understood as a monopoly rent to the detriment of consumers and competitors. Elsewhere, Dina Siravasen has explained how Facebook’s pattern of false statements and misleading conduct induced consumers to trust and choose Facebook with their personal data over competitors. The same pattern is visible with how Facebook slowly evolved from a platform that promoted news to one that promotes disinformation, to the detriment of news organizations and users.

Third, antitrust enforcers can prevent acquisitions designed by platforms to limit third parties access to information about their services. It’s hardly a coincidence that Facebook acquired CrowdTangle, an analytics company that had sounded the alarm regarding Russian interference, after the 2016 US election, and then dismantled it. In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, CrowdTangle CEO Brandon Silverman advocated for increased government oversight, saying, “I think what happened to CrowdTangle should be seen as a bellwether… That’s why I believe it’s time to create legislation that makes data sharing and transparency a requirement for the entire industry and creates mechanisms to do it in safe and responsible ways.”

Fourth, antitrust can help us open the black box of data that social media monopolies have. Antitrust enforcers can demand platforms to share that with them to understand their market practices. For example, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority platforms and digital advertising market study radically accelerated decision-makers and experts’ understanding of Google and Facebook’s advertising monopoly thanks to the capacity of the agency to collect and process over 5 terabytes of data. While more expansive data access for research rights would be necessary for a democratic society, antitrust is often a readily available tool to start understanding some aspects of tech monopolies’ power.

Fifth, antitrust is the main tool we have to limit big tech’s political power. There’s a reason why Big Tech is so worried about antitrust enforcement and legislation: they know that antitrust reform is necessary for curbing their political and social power. Simply put, like the new Brandesians argue, making monopolies divest to preserve competitive markets and prevent abuses over society and democracy is not an extreme interpretation of antitrust, it’s one of antitrust’s *raison d’etre*.

Fortunately, both the United States and the European Union have woken up to the importance of antitrust to re-embed digital markets to democratic and capitalistic societies. In the EU, the Digital Markets Act will open up tech monopolies’ business models to scrutiny and competition. In the US, progressive enforcers such as Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Lina Khan and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter have undusted old laws and statutes while Senator Klobuchar and Congressman Cicilline work to give them more tools with updated legislation.

Antitrust alone won’t be enough to protect democracy in the digital age. We will need rules to protect researchers, privacy, audit algorithms, and data collection. However, antitrust laws are an important first step in breaking up Big Tech and limiting their overwhelming control of the information we get.

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Omidyar Network

Omidyar Network

Omidyar Network is a social change venture that reimagines critical systems, and the ideas that govern them, to build more inclusive and equitable societies.