Clash of the (Tech) Titans

This morning my Apple iPhone alarm woke me up. I turned it off. I scrolled through Instagram. Then Facebook, and Twitter. I replied to a message on Whats App. Then I googled the opening times of Starbucks, as I was meeting a friend there soon. On my iPhone I was hit by no fewer than 8 ads, and my cookie data was recorded on multiple pages. All in the space of three and a half minutes. 

Last week Congress summoned 4 of the most powerful people in the world to answer some questions. And nope – these individuals weren’t Presidents, royalty or religious leaders. But if the old saying rings true, that knowledge is power, then these 4 make world leaders pale in comparison. In 3 and a half minutes for example, these individuals know more about me – my location, preferences and imminent plans – than any government in the world. 

Let’s break it down. 

1./a) – Who?

  • Jeff Bezos – Amazon. Net worth 182.2 billion USD
  • Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook. Net worth 85.9 billion USD
  • Tim Cook – Apple. Net worth 650 million USD
  • Sundar Pichai – Alphabet (Google). Net worth 600 million USD

 

2./b) – Why? 

In their own unique ways, these tech giants have gotten a little too big for their boots. The amount of concentrated power Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google own means they effectively have 0 competition – a dangerous precedent to set. The pandemic has only exacerbated this dominance.With physical stores closed, and more people online than ever before as a result, these companies have profiteered significantly. Bezos in particular is grinning all the way to the bank; in one single day during the pandemic, Bezos made $10 bn. 

Their overarching dominance and total monopolisation of the market has long been a concern for governments everywhere, and comes down to a simple question: with corporations this powerful, do we, as consumers, ever have a real choice? 

Choice over the services we use? Choice over our political leanings? And what are the implications of this lack of choice? Are we subconsciously sleepwalking into altogether a very different type of digital dictatorship and surveillance network?

Congressman David Cicilline certainly thought so, as he declared: “I have long believed, with Thomas Jefferson and Louis Brandeis, that concentration of power in any form—especially concentration of economic or political power—is dangerous to a democratic society.”

So here’s why these titans have been pulled in front of Washington: 

  • Amazon Accused of cheating marketplace sellers 

Thousands of small market sellers use Amazon’s platform Marketplace to sell their goods. Complaints have long been circulating, concerning Amazon’s intimidating and bullying behaviour which involves blocking sales, and using their sales data to help them launch similar products large scale. Essentially – Amazon uses their power to make it increasingly difficult for small competitors to have a fair shot at the eCommerce playing field.  

  • Facebook Accused of buying competition 

To be fair, it’s hard to argue with this one. Back in 2012, the rise of Instagram posed the biggest threat to Facebook’s dominance on the social media scene. Instead of competing, Zuckerberg neutralised the threat by purchasing the photo sharing platform for $1bn. The same happened in 2014, with WhatsApp’s threat to Facebook messenger – Zuckerberg purchased this one for an unbelievable $19bn. 

The result? 4 of the most downloadable social networking and communication apps (including Facebook messenger) in the hands of one company. Probably why it’s quite deservedly been coined a data monopoly. 

  • Apple Accused of unfairly running the app store 

Apple has an incredible amount of power when it comes to the distribution of apps. They decide the terms of the app’s distribution, and they decide the commission they’ll receive in return for use of their platform.  And when many companies rely on the download of their apps to determine their success… that is a whole lot of responsibility they’re entrusting to Apple. 

Unfortunately, Apple haven’t been respecting their role as the ‘Gatekeeper’ of the app store, and have been accused of imposing unfair terms on direct competitors and other third party developers when it comes to the distribution of their apps. 

Let’s take Spotify as an example. Spotify, Apple’s biggest competitor in the musical streaming world, has taken Apple to court for applying a 30% fee on all downloads. Surprisingly, Apple do not apply the same fee to the download of their own musical streaming service, Apple Music. As a result of this fee, Spotify temporarily increased their monthly subscription fee from $10 – $13 to help subsidise this extra cost. And Apple responded by lowering their own subscription fee. Coincidence? 

This is just one example of how Apple have been accused of squashing competition through crafty and manipulative techniques. Other complaints include Apple pushing their own apps to the top of the search result despite them not ranking as highly in terms of reviews and relevance as their competitors, and also granting other big corporations such as Amazon more favourable commission fees than their smaller competitors. Keeping the power in the hands of the few. 

  • Google – Accused of restricting movement of users to increase ad revenue

Google’s been accused of a fair few misdemeanours. The first biggie – keeping users within Google’s own parameters. For example. I’m on holiday and I want to go to dinner in an entirely new city I know nothing about. Let’s say Barcelona (what pandemic). I google ‘best restaurants in Barcelona’. At the very top of the page I get an extensive list of the top restaurants, with reviews, locations, prices, opening times, contact details and photographs. I do not have to go to the website of said restaurants; Google has provided all the information I need. I don’t move from Google’s four walls. 

And more time spent on Google means more cookie data, which means more targeting, and means more advertising revenue, which fundamentally boils down to more influence and power at the expense of these restaurants. Really, they’ve played a blinder.          

  • Joint Accusations – Big tech is anti conservative 

 Republicans had another bone to pick with the tech powerhouses; that of their political leftist bias. Rep. Jim Jordan didn’t beat around the bush – his opening statement started with: “I’ll just cut to the chase, Big Tech is out to get conservatives.” 

This is not the first time this accusation has been fired. In 2018 Pichai was questioned by Congress as to why the search term ‘idiot’ gave the top result as Donald Trump. His response: Google simply serves up the most relevant search results. Who can really argue with that?

More of the same accusations followed. Specific instances include Twitter (who were not even present) blocking Donald Trump Jr, and gmail marking conservative campaign emails as spam. The line between politics and tech is becoming increasingly hazy, with many being of the opinion that they have the power to swing elections. And with the November US election fast approaching, this antitrust hearing was the perfect opportunity for Republicans to air their grievances and extract promises from the tech giants to honour their commitment to neutrality. 

3./c) – What? 

The  5 hour event – aptly entitled the antitrust hearing – occurred on Wednesday 29th July. Having just one of these CEOs in front of congress is a big deal. All 4 sent out a clear message: Congress wants to reign in their power, and fast. 

So here’s what went down. After multiple technological glitches (the irony was lost on no-one), Bezos, Zurckerberg, Cook and Pichai all faced their virtual questioning (it is 2020 after all). 

Nobody came off particularly well. Tim Cook of Apple probably had the best time of it, as he faced the fewest questions. Zuckerberg on the other hand was quickly thrown to the wolves, when he was shown an email between himself and Facebook’s chief financial officer back in 2012, which explicitly stated that he purchased Instagram to neutralise his competition. Busted. 

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos admitted he couldn’t say for certainty that Amazon hadn’t illegally accessed third party sellers data, and was accused of acting like a ‘drug dealer’ in his running of Marketplace. And Sandar Pichai was called out for collaborating with China and working against American interests. 

All four CEOs came back to one central line of defense; their users’ best interests are at the heart of everything they do. Indeed, part of the reason these companies do possess the dominance they do, is because their services are just ridiculously good. Take Amazon as a prime (ha ha) example. Its algorithms from your past searches throw up the most relevant products. You place it in the basket, input only your card’s security code, and voila – your product is with you the next day. The same with Google. Keeping you on Google pages for longer is cheeky, but is a much better user experience. You have a uniform format where you can quickly access all the info you need without navigating through unfamiliar websites. Restricting the power of the tech giants is one thing; but persuading users to move away from their seamless services without a viable alternative is another. 

The outcome of this mammoth hearing? Pretty inconclusive. Yes, these tech titans wield too much power, and yes, they have clearly engaged in numerous ethically questionable practices to protect their influence and minimise competition. What is the solution? Holding them to account is paramount, as is increasing regulations around data monopolies. But will that be enough? Probably not. The hearing ended with the proposal of breaking up the big tech firms…but that’ll be a long process in the making, and will unsurprisingly be met with staunch opposition by many. In the short term, it’ll be interesting to see what further steps Congress will take to curb the power of the tech titans… or whether the big 4 will only increase their influence in the next few years. 

Stay tuned for round two of Congress vs Big Tech. 

 

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