Congress' antitrust hearing showed that Big Tech has a theft problem
Congress held an antitrust hearing on the predatory actions of the nation's largest tech firms last week. It demonstrated to the American public what they already instinctively knew was true: that the Big Tech cartels are out of control and playing by their own set of rules. But what the hearing brought to the forefront of the discussion that was not as well known before is that the mega-firms of Facebook, Amazon, and Google all appear to regularly steal from competitors or threaten them into submission to grow in size and power.
Google found itself on the defensive for the entirety of the hearing, with the opening question from subcommittee chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.) being "Why do you steal?" The committee heard from numerous businesses, large and small, that provided evidence of Google's seemingly blatant theft of content and data.
As demonstrated by the hearing, the examples of what appear to be outright theft on the part of Google are clear as day. The company allegedly poaches Yelp reviews and has threatened to delist the website from Google search results if it objects. The Supreme Court is also set to review how Google copied coding verbatim from Oracle's Java library to create Android after commercial licensing negotiations broke down. This seeming theft allowed Google not only to enter the mobile operating market, but also to outmatch its competitors. Now it is using its power to push a baseless "fair use" legal defense in the courts that would allow it to continue taking competitors' intellectual property in the future. Google's abuses are so great that it has sparked a separate investigation by the Department of Justice.
Google wasn't alone in the hearing.
Our representatives also found that Amazon, the digital retail giant, is no less guilty of these harmful practices. Rep. Pramilia Jayapal (D-Wash.) focused on how Amazon is strategically and unfairly taking sales data from its third-party vendors. It uses this information to create Amazon-branded products that compete against them in the marketplace. The relationship, while referred to by Amazon as mutually beneficial because of the multi-billion-dollar platform it provides vendors, seems to be heavily tilted in favor of the ecommerce giant. Rep. Mary Scanlon (D-Pa.) mentioned Amazon's foray into the diaper business and how it bled over $20 million a month to put one seller on its site out of business. It seems that Amazon helps vendors only until it doesn't need them anymore — and by then, the vendors often have nowhere else to go. Perhaps Cicilline said it best when he concurred that the behavior of Amazon was that of a drug-dealer.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) pushed Amazon on its theft of software to create its successful Echo speaker. He referenced a Wall Street Journal article that discussed how Amazon met with a small cloud computing company about new technology, only to allegedly steal it for its Echo speaker. CEO Jeff Bezos denied any wrongdoing.
Representatives' questioning also exposed how Facebook has behaved in an equally anti-consumer manner. Long the target of free speech scrutiny, the world's largest social network appears guilty of predatory business practices. Facebook's acquisition of Instagram was a target of the panel, with private communications between Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom indicating that Facebook had threatened the image-sharing site with financial ruin if it didn't sell. Zuckerberg was also quoted as saying Facebook would simply buy competitors to keep its market position, much as Standard Oil did during the first major trust busts a century ago. Although not mentioned in the trial, Snapchat executives have relayed a similar story about Facebook's attempts to purchase their app.
It paints a damning picture of the onetime Silicon Valley darling, out of touch and out of control. As Zuckerberg explained his acquisition strategy, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) could only comment, "Mr. Zuckerberg, you're making my case."
There remains some division about how Congress should proceed with its investigation, but Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) stated that there is a need to bring regulators up to speed to enforce current laws and protections better. In his closing remarks, Chairman Cicilline said that while they don't yet know what specific steps they will take, it was clear that "all [of the targeted companies] need to be properly regulated and held accountable." He found that the best way to do so would be to "ensure the antitrust laws first written more than a century ago work in the digital age."
Congress rarely is a place for bipartisanship, but so egregious are Big Tech's actions that even congressmen can't help but find common ground. Now they join the Department of Justice, the Supreme Court, and the states' attorneys general in using their full power to bring these abusers to justice. If they don't get things done, we can rest assured that President Trump has America covered. "If Congress doesn't bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders."
Sleep tight, crony tech.
Dr. Michael Busler, Ph.D., is a public policy analyst and a professor of finance at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in finance and economics. He has written op-ed columns in major newspapers for more than 35 years.