Will lawmakers downsize Silicon Valley?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 4th of August, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: regulating Big Tech.  

The four most powerful technology leaders in America appeared before the House last week. Some members of Congress accused them of creating monopolies of online services so many of us have come to rely on.

REICHARD: The CEOs of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon denied those charges. Both Republicans and Democrats seemed unconvinced. Could Silicon Valley be in for some changes?

Joining us now to talk about it is Jason Thacker. He is chair of research in technology ethics at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Good morning!

JASON THACKER, GUEST: Good morning. Thanks for having me, Mary.

REICHARD: Let’s start with Facebook. Lawmakers questions for Mark Zuckerberg had to do with his company’s acquisition of Instagram. What’s their concern?

THACKER: Yeah, I mean, as you said earlier, there’s been a lot of question, kind of antitrust questions surrounding Big Tech in general. But in many ways, the culture surrounding Silicon Valley of buying up start ups and kind of merging into these systems, so even if users, if you open up the Facebook app now, at the very bottom you’re going to see five different icons representing five different brands or companies that are under the Facebook umbrella. One of the largest and kind of most active is Instagram. And so lawmakers had a lot of questions specifically from the Democratic side of the aisle addressing how and why Instagram was acquired, were they knocking off a competitor, someone who might have done damage to Facebook? But even on the conservative side of the aisle, there were a lot of questions about censorship and misinformation. These tech companies are so intertwined in our lives and we’re so used to using these services. There’s a lot of distrust there. And so that’s really what was on display throughout this hearing. 

REICHARD: Amazon owner Jeff Bezos told lawmakers he couldn’t be accused of having a monopoly, because Amazon’s market share is still dwarfed by that of Walmart—the nation’s biggest retailer. But that’s not what lawmakers are worried about is it? They had questions about how Amazon uses information gleaned from businesses that use its platform to sell their own products. Can you go into that?

THACKER: Yeah, and so really what was happening here was a lot of questions surrounding the rise of the Amazon brand. And so you have in many ways the Amazon basics, whether it’s coolers or batteries or kind of any popular products where Amazon’s selling their own brand. And this is really similar to what you see with Walmart having the Great Value brand or Kroger having any type of brand. But one of the things that’s unique about the way Amazon works is that they have access as the platform through which all of these products sell to be able to use that information to actually help strengthen the feedback and the sales trends to help strengthen their own products, which in many ways would be seen as a monopoly or unfair business practices. And so one of the things that was kind of striking from this hearing was actually kind of an admission from Jeff Bezos saying that while they do have a policy against using the seller-specific data to strengthen their own private label, he said they couldn’t “guarantee that that policy has never been violated.” Which was kind of a big bomb that was dropped in the middle of the room to say we don’t know exactly if this has happened and Amazon has said they’re conducting an internal investigation. So, it’s going to be really interesting to see how all of this continues to play out.

REICHARD: What about Google and Apple?

THACKER: Yeah, in Google and Apple, this was more of an interesting take especially for Google because they’re kind of subtly everywhere. They’re behind a lot of things like our digital products, our Gmails, our applications and things and so there were a lot of questions specifically surrounding advertising on their platforms like YouTube, how those Google ads appear in your search results and how they’re culling information and keeping you away from various websites by putting that information at the top of your search results. And Google would argue that they’re making life easier and they are in many ways. But does that come at a cost of personal privacy and squashing various types of competition? And then Apple specifically, they’re first and foremost a computer technology company in the sense of putting out iPads and iPhones and various hardware devices along with their app ecosystem. But there were questions surrounding the app store and the commission that Apple has, but also the closed ecosystem that Apple operates. That’s intentional on their part, but it also could raise concerns about antitrust things, in many ways kind of reminiscent of the 90s and the hearings and the antitrust lawsuits that Microsoft went through themselves of being this kind of ecosystem where people are kind of locked in. And so that’s where a lot of the questions surrounded Google and Apple.

REICHARD: You know, Republicans have traditionally been more friendly to business. There’s a fine line between successful capitalism and unfairly taking out the competition. But they have less sympathy for social media companies because of some evidence that those companies are biased against conservatives.

Do you think that could lead to an alliance between Democrats and Republicans on some form of antitrust regulation?

THACKER: It very well might. The one thing that’s hard here is that Democrats are going on more of the antitrust monopoly route and conservatives are kind of more focused on conservative bias and so while there might be an alliance of doing something about the influence of technology companies in our lives, it’s very different what those outcomes would be. And so if it’s going to be an alliance, it’s going to be a rocky one to see exactly what can be done. Honestly, there’s really—in my opinion—not a lot of hope of major legislation taking place, especially before the November presidential election.

REICHARD: Jason Thacker is chair of research in technology ethics at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Thanks for joining us today!

THACKER: Yeah, thank you for having me, Mary.

(Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on antitrust on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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