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Washington Comes for Big Tech: Gradually and then Suddenly

Washington Comes for Big Tech: Gradually and then Suddenly

After years of relatively little attention from government regulators at home, the US tech giants are sitting under the anti-trust hammer. Earlier this week, shares of major tech stocks fell sharply after a series of media reports indicated that regulators at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission were already divvying up responsibility for investigations into Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon. The House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is readying a "top-to-bottom review of the market power held by giant tech platforms."


It's a remarkable change in Washington, which until recently had shown only scattered and uneven attention to the power that tech companies have amassed over markets, consumers, and political discourse. The shift reminds us of the character in Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises who describes the process of going bankrupt as "gradually and then suddenly." (It's an irony that just months ago Silicon Valley guru Tim O'Reilly used this quote to describe how technology changes the world). Now that we are in the "suddenly" phase of US tech regulation, here are a few points to keep in mind as the plot thickens – and thicken it will:

This didn't start with the US. Europe's tough data laws and hefty anti-trust fines on some of the world's biggest internet companies have already set the stage. Now the push to regulate Big Tech has moved across the Atlantic. In part that's not a coincidence – lawmakers in DC are increasingly concerned that European standard-setting on global tech regulation is leaving the US behind.

This is a rare issue with bipartisan support. Both Republicans and Democrats are keen to cut the tech companies down to size, but for somewhat different reasons. Many Democrats worry chiefly about the ways that Big Tech can harm consumers or affect elections, while some Republicans (including the President) argue social media companies are censoring conservative views. At a time of such shrill partisanship, the common focus on tech regulation stands out, but whether mutual concern will translate in to meaningful policy remains to be seen.

What's next? If Washington really wants to rein in Big Tech's market power, there are plenty of ideas floating around. Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren wants to break up the tech giants. Another concept that's started to bubble up in Europe is that of a "progressive data-sharing mandate" – forcing companies that reach a certain market size to share a portion of their data with competitors. The idea is to make sure companies compete over who offers the better service, rather than allowing established players with better data sets to run would-be rivals off the field.

The golden goose constraint: Damaging data breaches, the misuse of personal information, and a growing fear that Big Tech has become too big for its (and society's) own good mean the public and lawmakers have plenty of reasons to increase their scrutiny of the sector. But tech is still the most important sector for the global economy – it's created new jobs and wealth, while improving the lives of billions of people around the world. Even as they move to regulate, at a time when the US is locked in an escalating technology and trade struggle with China, Congress and the White House will step cautiously to avoid killing the golden goose.

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Watch Ian's human approach to communications on the most recent episode of Faces of Eni.

Today at 12 noon EST, join GZERO Media for a virtual Town Hall, "Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year," presented in partnership with Eurasia Group and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Our panel will discuss the road ahead in the global response to the COVID crisis. Will there be more multilateral cooperation on issues like gender equality moving forward from the pandemic?

Watch the event here: https://www.gzeromedia.com/townhall

Our moderator, CNBC health care correspondent Bertha Coombs, along with Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, and Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, will speak with distinguished experts on three key issues:

Heidi Larson, Director, The Vaccine Confidence Project

  • How will COVID vaccines be distributed safely?

Minouche Shafik, Director of London School of Economics & Political Science

  • How has the pandemic disproportionately impacted women?

Madeleine Albright, Chair, Albright Stonebridge Group and Albright Capital Management; former US Secretary of State

  • What is the opportunity for global cooperation emerging from this crisis, and what are the greatest political risks?
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How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.

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While recent news from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the efficacy of their respective COVID vaccines is encouraging, it has also given rise to bidding wars between wealthy countries trying to secure the largest supply of the new drugs for their citizens. Meanwhile, many governments in emerging market economies, where healthcare infrastructure is generally weaker, are worried they'll be kicked to the back of the line in the global distribution process. Indeed, history bears out their concerns: while a lifesaving HIV treatment hit shelves in the West in the mid-1990s, for example, it took years to become widely available in Africa, which saw some of the worst HIV outbreaks in the world. But here's the catch: even if wealthy countries manage to obtain large supplies of vaccines to immunize their populations, the interconnected nature of the global economy means that no one will really be out of the woods until we all are. Here's a snapshot of how many COVID vaccines select countries have already purchased.

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.

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Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year. Watch on Friday. Dec 4 2020 12 noon - 1 pm ET

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