Big Tech’s reckoning

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: breaking up Big Tech.

Last week, a House panel issued a report on the business practices of tech titans Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook. The report accused them of amassing “monopoly power.”

NICK EICHER, HOST: Democrats control the House, therefore the committee, therefore the report. And their bent toward regulation shows up in the recommendations. They range from breaking up the companies to providing more funding and oversight tools to the government’s antitrust agencies. The top Republican called the report’s factual findings  “undeniable.” Even as he disagreed with some of the proposed remedies. The companies say they’re being punished for their success.

REICHARD: Joining us now to talk about where things go from here 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!

JASON THACKER, GUEST: Good morning. Thank you for having me. 

REICHARD: What was your biggest takeaway from this report? Did anything surprise you?

THACKER: Honestly, there wasn’t a ton that surprised me. A lot of this specific report was focused on antitrust, obviously. So it really wasn’t designed to engage a lot of the issues that everyday people are questioning—talking about the role of misinformation or the role of social media in our elections, the undue influence of algorithms. A lot of listeners might have seen The Social Dilemma in the last few weeks. This report doesn’t really address a lot of those kind of pressing question. It really focuses on antitrust matters and are these companies too big? Do they need to be broken up? Does there need to be additional regulation in order to protect consumers but also to push for greater competition.

REICHARD: Do you think the Big Tech companies will make any changes to try to preempt any proposed regulation?

THACKER: Possibly. It’s one of those things that right out of the gate you had Amazon and Google pointing out that a lot of these antitrust proposals—specifically in this report—were flawed. They misunderstood the ways that the businesses are set up. But Twitter and Facebook are making changes with the upcoming election about the spread of misinformation and a possibly contested election. And so you’re starting to see some changes and I think that’s really helpful and I think that’s encouraging. 

But the report itself was kind of heavy-handed and some of the proposals are met with skepticism on both sides—specifically on more of your conservative senators and things. And I think it’s really important in this specific instance to note that this report didn’t have a single Republican sponsor or supporter. It was written by Democrats and in many ways it kind of reinforced a lot of the ways that Democrats have already been approaching these things in terms of Big Tech and antitrust.

REICHARD: From a cultural perspective, these platforms have become ubiquitous. Even critics often use them because they are so woven into the way we now communicate or go about our daily lives. So, what do you think is driving the groundswell of antipathy toward them? Are they victims of their own success?

THACKER: Yes and no. I mean, we’re kind of at a tipping point, kind of a crucial moment within our economy and in the life of our nation where you have these big technology companies really able to have outsized influence in many ways in the ways that we communicate, in the ways that we connect as a public. And so given that we’re facing a lot of challenges that are, I don’t like to use the word unprecedented in the land of 2020, but in many ways they kind of are because we don’t really know exactly how to navigate a lot of these things. And we’re kind of having to figure it out while we’re navigating them, while we’re right in the middle of it. 

And so for me is thinking through is how do we address this even as Christians and how do we approach these things. And I think we need to be really nuanced and I think we need to take responsibility for the ways we use these tools every single day. But then also be really thoughtful about any types of regulatory approaches. How do we actually want to just go about a lot of these problems and hopefully bridging the aisle, bridging the gap between the left and the right and the liberals and conservatives to come up with some types of good, common sense solutions that really benefit not only consumers but also push for a better economy and business.

REICHARD: A lot of what happens next depends on the November election.  What do you think are the likely next steps in this push to break up Big Tech, and how do you think it will affect our daily lives?

THACKER: Yeah, as you said, a lot of this does kind of ride on the election. So, in the short term I don’t think this is really going to change the nature of the conversation too much. As I said earlier, it kind of confirms what people already believed about these issues and about these situations. So, I don’t think the report itself will do that. 

What it does do is it generates more conversation, even having conversations like this today. It generates more conversation, which is good. We need healthy public discourse around these really important issues—not just specifically antitrust regulation, but really just the role of social media and the role of technology companies in our society and in our economy. I think these are going to be the pressing issues that we’re going to be dealing with and facing over the next few years. 

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

THACKER: Thank you for having me.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Evan Vucci, Jeff Chiu, Jens Meyer, File) This file combination of 2019-2020 photos shows Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. 

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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