Donald Trump’s election lies and the 6 January attack on the US Capitol have highlighted how big tech has led our society down a path of conspiracies and radicalism by ignoring the mounting evidence that their products are dangerous.
But the spread of deadly misinformation on a global scale was enabled by the absence of antitrust enforcement by the federal government to rein in out-of-control monopolies such as Facebook and Google. And there is a real risk social media giants could sidestep accountability once again.
Trump’s insistence that he won the election was an attack on democracy that culminated in the attack on the US Capitol. The events were as much the fault of Sundar Pichai, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg – CEOs of Google, Twitter and Facebook, respectively – as they were the fault of Trump and his cadre of co-conspirators.
During the early days of social media, no service operated at the scale of today’s Goliaths. Adoption was limited and online communities lived in small and isolated pockets. When the Egyptian uprisings of 2011 proved the power of these services, the US state department became their cheerleaders, offering them a veneer of exceptionalism which would protect them from scrutiny as they grew exponentially.
Later, dictators and anti-democratic actors would study and co-opt these tools for their own purposes. As the megaphones got larger, the voices of bad actors also got louder. As the networks got bigger, the feedback loop amplifying those voices became stronger. It is unimaginable that QAnon could gain a mass following without tech companies’ dangerous indifference.
Eventually, these platforms became immune to forces of competition in the marketplace – they became information monopolies with runaway scale. Absent any accountability from watchdogs or the marketplace, fringe conspiracy theories enjoyed unchecked propagation. We can mark networked conspiracies from birtherism to QAnon as straight lines through the same coterie of misinformers who came to power alongside Trump.
Today, most global internet activity happens on services owned by either Facebook or Alphabet, which includes YouTube and Google. The internet has calcified into a pair of monopolies who protect their size by optimizing to maximize “engagement”. Sadly, algorithms designed to increase dependency and usage are far more profitable than ones that would encourage timely, local, relevant and, most importantly, accurate information. The truth, in a word, is boring. Facts rarely animate the kind of compulsive engagement rewarded by recommendation and search algorithms.
The best tool – if not the only tool – to hold big tech accountable is antitrust enforcement: enforcing the existing antitrust laws designed to rein in companies’ influence over other political, economic and social institutions.
Antitrust enforcement has historically been the US government’s greatest weapon against such firms. From breaking up the trusts at the start of the 20th century to the present day, antitrust enforcement spurs competition and ingenuity while re-empowering citizens. Most antitrust historians agree that absent US v Microsoft in 1998, which stopped Microsoft from bundling products and effectively killing off other browsers, the modern internet would have been strangled in the crib.
The best tool to hold big tech accountable is antitrust enforcement: enforcing the existing antitrust laws designed to rein in companies’ influence over other political, economic and social institutions
Ironically, Google and Facebook were the beneficiaries of such enforcement. Over two decades would pass before US authorities brought antitrust suits against Google and Facebook last year. Until then, antitrust had languished as a tool to counterbalance abusive monopolies. Big tech sees an existential threat in the renewed calls for antitrust, and these companies have aggressively lobbied to ensure key vacancies in the Biden administration are filled by their friends.
The Democratic party is especially vulnerable to soft capture by these tech firms. Big tech executives are mostly left-leaning and donate millions to progressive causes while spouting feelgood rhetoric of inclusion and connectivity. During the Obama administration, Google and Facebook were treated as exceptional, avoiding any meaningful regulatory scrutiny. Democratic Senate leadership, specifically Senator Chuck Schumer, has recently signaled he will treat these companies with kid gloves.
The Biden administration cannot repeat the Obama legacy of installing big tech-friendly individuals to these critical but often under-the-radar roles. The new administration, in consultation with Schumer, will be tasked with appointing a new assistant attorney general for antitrust at the Department of Justice and up to three members of the Federal Trade Commission. Figures friendly to big tech in those positions could abruptly settle the pending litigation against Google or Facebook.
President Joe Biden and Schumer must reject any candidate who has worked in the service of big tech. Any former White House or congressional personnel who gave these companies a pass during the Obama administration should also be disqualified from consideration. Allowing big tech’s lawyers and plants to run the antitrust agencies would be the equivalent of allowing a climate-change-denying big oil executive run the Environmental Protection Agency.
The public is beginning to recognize the harms to society wrought by big tech and a vibrant and bipartisan anti-monopoly movement with diverse scholars, and activists has risen over the past few years. Two-thirds of Democratic voters believe, along with a majority of Republicans, that Biden should “refuse to appoint executives, lobbyists, or lawyers for these companies to positions of power or influence in his administration while this legal activity is pending”. This gives the Democratic party an opportunity to do the right thing for our country and attract new voters by fighting for the web we want.
Big tech played a central role in the dangerous attack on the US Capitol and all of the events which led to it. Biden’s antitrust appointees will be the ones who decide if there are any consequences to be paid.
Joan Donovan is the research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
Amed Khan was a member of the Biden-Harris campaign national finance committee