Despite the partisan conflicts that seem to be the hallmark of American democracy these days, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that Google and Facebook are headed for regulatory confrontation.
The tight hold on advertising and dissemination of information these tech giants enjoy merits three areas of concern for the public to scrutinize as the country ruminates on the idea of antitrust regulation:
- What impact do these companies have on democracy around the world?
- How will these companies control the spread of false information?
- What will be the financial impact on media and other industries if competition is lacking?
The immediate benefits Google and Facebook offer societies around the globe cannot be overstated. Acquiring information for most of history required money and social status to attend school or the resources to build a library. The radical rise of the internet means even developing nations have access to more knowledge than the world’s elites enjoyed only a century ago.
Google makes searching that database a breeze, and Facebook brings together more than 1.86 billion users, enabling like-minded people to share ideas and organize social movements.
The ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections, however, represents the limitation of technology’s boon to democracy. Writing for The Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal remarked, “the potential for Facebook to have an impact on an election was clear for at least half a decade before Donald Trump was elected.” And Alex Stamos, Facebook security chief, commented on the scope of electronic meddling by saying, “there (are) lots of places in the world where the same kind of activity is being seen on a smaller scale.”
As more bad actors utilize the reach of internet giants to undermine democratic institutions, government has a role to decide whether heightened regulatory systems would prevent the kind of meddling that has influenced voters worldwide.
It’s equally important that the public holds Google and Facebook accountable for the spread of false information. Genuinely fabricated facts propagate like an infectious disease, enabled by the ease of sharing on social media networks. An informed citizenry should be the primary defense against such content, but tech giants should also work to ensure their platforms guard truth and expose falsehoods.
Facebook announced it would devote $1 million in funding to defensive research and security measures. That's a start, but not nearly enough for a company with $500 billion in market value, particularly when the stakes are so high.
The financial impact of this lack of competition is also a concern. According to market research company eMarketer, "Google and Facebook combined will account for more than 65 percent of U.S. digital ad revenues in 2018."9 comments on this story
With a majority hold on ad revenues, Google and Facebook wield powers to dampen advertising cash flows to other industries, such as the media. CNN president Jeff Zucker openly stated that Google and Facebook are monopolies that should come under federal investigation and scrutiny. Unregulated control, he says, is “probably the biggest issue facing the growth of journalism in the years ahead.”
There is ample evidence that the concentration of market power in these technology ecosystems poses risks to the healthy functioning of an open and free marketplace, as well as the dissemination of independent information.
The Department of Justice is tied up in a lawsuit over the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, declaring AT&T would use the acquisition as a “weapon to harm competition.” It’s worth considering whether Google and Facebook deserve the same scrutiny.