Have Tech Companies Become Too Powerful? Congress Will Investigate
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
How important have Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon become to your daily life? Some in Congress think that these companies have gotten way too big and have way too much power to the point that they are snuffing out competition and actually harming consumers. This comes as the Trump administration has also suggested ramping up its antitrust oversight. Tony Romm with The Washington Post has done extensive reporting on this and is here with us in the studio.
Thanks for coming in.
TONY ROMM: Hey. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So Congress is holding hearings this week on this very topic. What, realistically, is going to come from them?
ROMM: Yeah. This is about the walls really closing in on big tech companies here in Washington. We've heard lots of theoretical concerns for a long time that companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon are too big and, as a result of that bigness, are misusing your data or stifling competition. But we're now beginning to see lawmakers of both political parties putting that into action.
And what we had this week was an announcement from David Cicilline, the top congressman who leads the House Judiciary Committee's competition focus panel, saying that they're going to embark on this very lengthy, top-to-bottom review of big tech companies to see exactly if they're stifling competition and then to figure out at the end of the line here whether something has to be done to fix the country's antitrust laws. And so we could see a lot here. We could see public hearings. We could see the grilling of major tech executives once again. We could even see subpoenas that force these companies to turn over documents. So it could be pretty uncomfortable for tech.
MARTIN: I mean, we did see the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, testifying in front of Congress last year. I want to play a little clip of that. Let's listen.
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MARK ZUCKERBERG: It overlaps with a portion of what we do.
LINDSEY GRAHAM: You don't think you have a monopoly?
ZUCKERBERG: It certainly doesn't feel like that to me.
MARTIN: So Facebook, as you point out, has long been accused of privacy breaches, of spreading disinformation. And Washington kind of just turned a blind eye. Now there is this change. Is this all because of the Russia investigation?
ROMM: It feels like they're playing a bit of catch-up here in Washington. It's not all because of the Russia investigation. But I feel - and if you talk to experts, they say the same thing - there's this overwhelming feeling that perhaps Washington just wasn't paying enough attention to the ills of the tech industry, that companies like Facebook had gotten a pretty decent political ride here in Washington.
But whether it's what happened with Russia and the spread of disinformation or the privacy violations we've seen at Facebook, there's now this recognition that perhaps regulation hasn't caught up with these companies. And so this sort of translates into the antitrust conversation with a company like Facebook because lawmakers say, well, if you're concerned with the things that a company like Facebook is doing, where do you turn?
ROMM: What's the other social network that you use if you find that Facebook is acting in some objectionable way? They think the choices are too few.
MARTIN: Right. Because unlike, you know, Apple, which produces the iPhone, there are other alternatives. Something like Facebook, there really isn't something distinct that could provide an alternative for consumers.
ROMM: Yeah. And Facebook bought up some of its competitors, right? So Facebook also owns WhatsApp, a messaging service. It owns Instagram, which is a photo sharing site that many folks use. And so the concern is that Washington allowed this sort of consolidation to happen and that perhaps there needs to be a second look at a company like Facebook.
MARTIN: So separately, the Trump administration is taking these steps - at least, talking about them - to increase antitrust oversight. How is that going to play out?
ROMM: Yeah. We're sort of seeing the reckoning translate to the Trump administration as well as the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice. The two major antitrust agencies here in Washington are beginning to divvy up their territory, deciding which agency is going to look at Facebook or Google or Apple or Amazon. And so it's still early days. This is not to say that there's some immediate antitrust investigation hanging over these companies or that they're going to be broken up or something. But this starts the process that could lead to the sorts of things that change the way these companies behave.
MARTIN: I mean, Donald Trump and Democratic contender for the White House Elizabeth Warren don't agree on much. But at least they're both talking about the fact that these companies have gotten too large. I mean, she's just calling out for the all-out disassembly of these companies. Facebook's co-founder, Chris Hughes, published an op-ed in The New York Times and talked to us on our show last month calling for Facebook to be broken up. Let's play that.
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CHRIS HUGHES: What used to be a little startup, the story of American entrepreneurship, has become a leviathan. And most importantly, Mark Zuckerberg is unaccountable. And I think government should step up, break up the company and regulate it.
MARTIN: Can you foresee that happening?
ROMM: We're a long way from that. There is a rare political alignment right now between folks like Warren and President Trump who all feel for slightly different reasons that we need to take a much tougher look at these big tech companies. But a breakup of Facebook or any of its peers, for that matter, is something that wouldn't just happen overnight. I mean, remember, when the U.S. government looked at Microsoft and embarked on an antitrust investigation then, it took over a decade for that to even be resolved. So we're talking about a long process, and the conversation started really this week.
MARTIN: Tony Romm covers technology policy for The Washington Post, and he was in our studios. We should add Facebook, Amazon and Google are all NPR sponsors.
Tony, thank you.
ROMM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.