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.

"I think there are certain times where you have tectonic shifts and change always happens that way."

On the latest episode of 'That Made All the Difference,' Vincent Stanley, Director of Philosophy at Patagonia, shares his thoughts on the role we all have to play in bringing our communities and the environment back to health.

For many, Paul Rusesabagina became a household name after the release of the 2004 tear-jerker film Hotel Rwanda, which was set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Rusesabagina, who used his influence as a hotel manager to save the lives of more than 1,000 Rwandans, has again made headlines in recent weeks after he was reportedly duped into boarding a flight to Kigali, Rwanda's capital, where he was promptly arrested on terrorism, arson, kidnapping and murder charges. Rusesabagina's supporters say he is innocent and that the move is retaliation against the former "hero" for his public criticism of President Paul Kagame, who has ruled the country with a strong hand since ending the civil war in the mid 1990s.

More Show less

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

It's UNGA week, very unusual New York to have the United Nations General Assembly meetings. You know, the city is locked down. It's almost always locked down this week, but usually you can't get anywhere because you've got all these marshals with dozens of heads of state and well over a hundred foreign ministers and their delegations jamming literally everything, Midtown and branching out across the city. This time around, the security cordon for the United Nations itself is barely a block, and no one is flying in. I mean, the weather is gorgeous, and you can walk pretty much anywhere, but nothing's really locked down aside from, of course, the fact that the restaurants and the bars and the theaters and everything else is not happening given the pandemic. And it's not just in the US, it's all around the world.

More Show less

Listen: Have you ever heard of Blue Zones? They're communities all around the globe—from Sardinia to Okinawa to Loma Linda, CA—where residents exceed the average human lifespan by years, and even decades. While they've been studied for the lessons we can learn about health, lifestyle, and environment, you don't have to live in a Blue Zone to experience increased longevity. It's happening everywhere. In fact, the number of people over 80 is expected to triple by 2050, reaching nearly half a billion. This episode of Living Beyond Borders focuses on the geopolitical and economic implications of an aging global population, how to make the most of new chapters in your life as you age, and what it all means for your money and the world around you.

More Show less

Born in the ashes of World War II, the United Nations now marks its 75th anniversary amid another global crisis. But is the world ready to come together today as it did decades ago? Ian Bremmer offers a brief history of the organization, and some memorable moments from years gone by, as the UN's 193 member states gather virtually for the 2020 General Assembly.

Watch the episode: UN Secretary-General António Guterres: Why we still need the United Nations


UNGA banner

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal

Episode 4: The World Goes Gray

Living Beyond Borders Podcasts