Yr of reckoning for Huge Tech: How U.S. lawmakers plan to rein in corporations like Fb and Google in 2022

If 2021 were a rallying cry for US lawmakers against the world’s largest tech companies, it would be: “Legislation is coming.”

That year, lawmakers went beyond companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, collectively known as Big Tech.

They put new laws in place. New bills now being tabled in US Congress contain measures that target a wide range of concerns – from anti-competitive behavior to the mental health effects of using social media and the spread of disinformation on online platforms.

“I think Big Tech today represents the greatest accumulation of power, market power, and monopoly power the world has ever seen,” said Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas at a congressional hearing in April.

While there is no guarantee that the bills will pass in 2022, the conditions are in place for a massive change in the regulatory landscape for big tech.

In addition, US President Joe Biden has made it clear that his government will hold technology companies accountable by passing executive ordinance on federal agencies to enforce fair competition rules.

Proposed bills in the United States include measures that address a wide range of concerns – from anti-competitive behavior to the mental health impact of social media use and the spread of disinformation on online platforms. (Dado Ruvic / Reuters)

The antitrust laws brought to Congress this year will be the subject of intense debate next year. Lawmakers will likely focus on narrowing the reach of big tech companies and reforming the country’s fair competition laws.

“I think a lot has come together this year,” said Eleanor Fox, professor of antitrust law at New York University. “It’s a real question of whether things will change next year, that is, whether we’re getting closer and closer to really getting a grip on big tech and controlling its abuse in the United States.”

Lawmakers say these abuses include “killer acquisitions” or the practice of buying up rivals to crush competition. Online platforms have also been criticized for preferring their own content or products when hosted on their websites.

“Antitrust laws are very weak”

“Our antitrust laws are very weak,” Fox said, noting that an important part of the new legislation would shift the burden of proof from governments to big tech companies when it comes to justifying that their mergers will not harm competition .

Legislators have cited Facebook’s takeover of Instagram and WhatsApp as an example of monopoly behavior.

Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar has tabled bill to increase the budgets of federal agencies charged with enforcing fair competition rules.

“Our economy is facing a massive competition problem today. We can no longer brush this issue under the rug and hope that our existing laws are appropriate,” Klobuchar said in a statement in February.

Eleanor Fox, an antitrust professor at New York University, says antitrust laws in the United States are too weak to keep big tech in check. (Kris Reyes / CBC)

Biden’s successive moves that year also signaled his administration’s intention to crack down on big tech.

In June, Biden appointed Lina Khan, a noted Silicon Valley critic and a 32-year-old associate law professor at Columbia University in New York, to head the Federal Trade Commission.

Shortly thereafter, he signed an executive order that addressed many of the questions about fair competition raised in the new bills before Congress. He also accepted another prominent appointment, choosing Jonathan Kanter, another Big Tech critic, to head the antitrust division of the US Department of Justice.

Non-partisan support

“Capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It’s exploitation, ”Biden said in July.

Although both parties support these measures, Democrats and Republicans still disagree on how to create a competitive and fair landscape for consumers and businesses in the digital age.

Technical leaders have also repeatedly defended their practices despite having stated that they are ready to rewrite some of the rules for their industry.

Lina Khan testifies during a hearing for her nomination to chair the Federal Trade Commission on April 21, 2021 in Washington, DC (Graeme Jennings / Getty Images)

“At the moment there are a number of bills in the form of bills. It is possible for one or two of these to be passed. It’s also possible that nothing will happen, ”said Fox. “The US Congress is very confused. And it is very difficult to predict what legs will have.”

In 2021, after years of hearings and investigations, lawmakers and lawyers were finally provided with information and expertise related to the practices of big tech.

Congress won’t be the only arena where big tech will fight. Extensive lawsuits have been filed against Facebook, Google and Amazon, some of which call for the companies to be dissolved.

“Not very robust”

“We have to control their power. And the law as it is now isn’t very robust to control their power,” Fox said.

The other big boost for Congress in regulating big tech will be content moderation and censorship. In March, tech executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter were grilled in Congress about the role their platforms might have played in fueling the January 6th Capitol Rising in Washington, DC

“You have some responsibility for what happened,” Pennsylvania Democratic MP Mike Doyle urged executives during the hearing.

Everyone avoided giving a simple yes or no.

In this image from the video, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a House Energy and Trade Committee hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on March 25, 2021. (House Energy and Commerce Committee / The Associated Press)

“Our responsibility is to ensure that we build systems effectively,” said Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg. The CEOs said they take some responsibility for toxic content on their websites but insisted that neither their companies nor the government should monitor what people post.

Legislators on both sides disagree.

“The days of self-regulation are over,” said New Jersey Democratic MP Frank Pallone.

In June, a Republican senator tabled a bill to enforce and modernize Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Big Tech critics have called the law antiquated, which allows companies like Facebook and Twitter to wash their hands off the content on their websites.

“Big Tech has ruined the reputation of countless Americans, openly meddled in our elections by banning news, and censored important topics like the origins of the coronavirus for no reason,” said Florida Republican Senator Marc Rubio.

Republicans criticize social media companies for censoring conservative positions. Both parties also criticize the mental health effects of adolescents using social media platforms, especially Instagram.

Several bills tabled in Congress cover a wide range of issues, from data collection by technology companies to online minors’ safety to protecting whistleblowers.

In October, Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who became a whistleblower, testified before Congress.

CLOCK | Whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies on Facebook:

Facebook picks profits over security, says whistleblower

A former Facebook data scientist told a Senate subcommittee that Facebook has “repeatedly misled” the public about what its research says about the safety of children using its social media sites. (Drew Angerer / The Associated Press) 0:57

“Facebook products harm children, promote division and weaken democracy,” said Haugen, a data engineer and former product manager at the social media company.

She described a company that prioritized profit over public safety, with a CEO who was not accountable to anyone. Haugen provided a pool of leaked documents that she believed to support her claims.

Zuckerberg defended his company’s business practices against his employees.

“I think most of us just don’t see the wrong picture of the company being painted,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “I take pride in everything we do to continue creating the best social products in the world.”

Whistleblower has testified several times

Haugen has since been called on several times by Congress to testify about the reform of Section 230, the rules that protect online platforms from being responsible for third party content on their websites.

“I think what Frances Haugen did was heroic,” said Marc Berkman, CEO of the Social Media Safety Organization, a California-based advocacy group that works to keep children safe online. “I think families will be safer or safer if we look at these dangers.”

In light of growing public concern about the impact of social media usage on children and teenagers, Instagram has announced plans to launch a children’s version of its platform.

Berkman said his nonprofit’s work has intensified in recent years, both with regards to keeping children safe online and properly informing parents about what their children are experiencing on social media.

“I think legislation is an integral part of the security puzzle here. So if we don’t see legislation, more people will be harmed, ”he said.

In Europe, legislators have just passed a comprehensive package of laws called the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, which many consider to be the toughest set of rules for online platforms since their meteoric rise.

The whistleblower Frances Haugen speaks in front of the European Parliament in Brussels on November 8, 2021. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert / The Associated Press)

The new rules cover a wide range of topics, from restricting the marketing power of technology to requiring them to better monitor the content on their websites. The rules could be adopted next year.

The EU is one step ahead of other countries, such as the US, where many of the proposed laws are still being discussed.

“The whole world understands the abuses of big tech and tries to control them in different ways,” said Fox.

“A huge problem is that big tech is global, no question about it. And the laws we are talking about are only national. Big tech has a great chance of playing nations off against each other.”

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