For years, the big American technology companies have grown without too many regulatory impediments to the point of becoming global mastodons. Thanks to attractive products and services that respond to market demand, with loose or directly non-existent regulations in some areas, and wrapped in the American dream aura of the entrepreneur in their garage who becomes a billionaire, the big Silicon Valley companies have achieved such a powerful market position that many consider them de facto monopolies.
The power acquired by colossus such as Facebook, Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) or Amazon is such that United States politicians of all stripes are explicitly seeking formulas to reduce this power and avoid monopolies.
In particular, Donald Trump’s administration has taken a belligerent position against the tech giants and is leading a strategy to limit their power. The Federal Trade Commission – responsible for overseeing competition – and the Justice Department have opened various investigations against the four colossus to determine whether they function as monopolies.
And the United States Congress is working on a regulatory review with the same objective. A month ago, the top big tech executives had to appear before Congress, this time telematically in the wake of the pandemic, to defend themselves against doubts about alleged anti-competitive practices. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Sundar Pichai (Alphabet/Google), Tim Cook (Apple) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) stressed that they do not operate as monopolies, do not have a strategy of buying rivals to eliminate competition, do not take advantage of their massive control of data to further strengthen themselves, that their companies drive small businesses in the country and their size is useful to compete with the Chinese giants.
“If Congress does not force big technology companies to be fair, which it should have done years ago, I will do it myself with executive orders,” President Trump has threatened, showing a belligerence against tech giants for their possible monopolistic position and, in parallel, because he considers that some of them penalise conservative positions in the face of progressive values. Particularly striking is his relationship with Twitter: a social network that has become his main loudspeaker and yet has ended up concealing some of his messages, considering them a glorification of violence.
Trump’s position is clear. His Democratic opponent in the election for the White House, Joe Biden, has so far been more nuanced and relatively less hostile. During the Democratic Party’s primary process to nominate a presidential candidate, some of the candidates from the more progressive wing (notably Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) openly defended separating the giants into several companies to avoid abuses of power or to reverse some of the large acquisitions they’ve made in recent years.
Biden has avoided openly defending separating the groups to limit their dominant position. And it should be remembered that some of the large mergers that have sent their power skyrocketing (such as Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram) occurred during Barack Obama’s term, with Biden himself as vice president. In an interview with The New York Times a few months ago, the already-named Democratic candidate excused himself by noting that it was Obama who had the last word on this and other tech industry issues, and that only on few occasions – “about 30% of the time” – he managed to convince him when they disagreed.
Biden has indeed played a leading role in direct clashes with Facebook, denouncing that it irresponsibly allows the dissemination of false information and even warning about alleged “criminal” implications of some of its activities (especially in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russia’s supposed meddling in previous U.S. presidential elections). And he has also defended revoking some legislation on internet content, dating back more than 20 years, in order to better combat fake news and hate speech.
The former vice president has also very explicitly criticised, with gibes bordering on insults, the arrogance of some digital industry executives. But the Democratic candidate is not making control of the big technology companies a campaign issue, as opposed to Trump’s open belligerence. On the contrary, Biden’s decision to elect Kamala Harris to be his running mate as vice president has been greeted with relief by the tech companies.
As Senator for California and with Silicon Valley included in her own constituency, the technology industry sees Harris as a potential ally in the midst of the controversy over possible monopolistic behaviour, and during the primaries she has obtained explicit backing (with public support and through donations) from top executives at technology companies.
The Democratic candidate – who has defended that Twitter close Donald Trump’s account due to his misuse from the White House – insists on focusing his message about the industry on defending new regulatory measures to ensure protection of privacy. However, Harris has been avoiding taking a stance on the need to divide the giants as an antitrust solution.
It is therefore very uncertain what will happen in regard to regulation of large technology companies with another tenant in the White House. Nor is it clear in what direction a new Trump administration would tend to go. But in Europe we do know one thing for certain: It would be very naive to think that Washington will not defend, with greater or lesser intensity, the interests of its large companies, and even more in the context of a cold war with China. That is why it is so important for the EU to be able to defend its own path in the new world order that is being configured, totally defined by digitalisation.