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In politics, timing is everything. And right now, the U.S. Congress has a unique opportunity to rein in Big Tech and establish the new rules of the game for the next big era of social media innovation. Not only is the general American public ready and primed for Washington to do something about companies like Facebook and YouTube, but also there appears to be political will in the corridors of power to bring Big Tech to heel. Everything and anything seems to be on the table right now, ranging from greater regulatory oversight to breaking up these companies into much smaller parts. Now that Google has literally become an Alphabet soup of companies, it’s finally time to get serious about regulating Big Tech.
The context for regulating Big Tech
In the past months, we’ve seen unprecedented activity on the part of Washington politicians – even going so far as to require four of the biggest tech titans – CEO Tim Cook of Apple, CEO Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, CEO Jeff Bezos of Amazon and CEO Sundar Pichai of Alphabet – to appear in front of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee to explain their monopoly-like power in the digital media space. So is now finally the time that we see Washington attempt to break up these tech titans once and for all, similar to the way they broke up Bell Telephone in the 1980s and Standard Oil nearly 100 years ago?
Certainly, there are some politicians who think so. On the Far Left, politicians like AOC and Elizabeth Warren have already expressed their willingness to break up Silicon Valley tech giants. And, driven by concerns over censorship and protected free speech, the Far Right is now threatening to punish companies like Twitter by literally signing Executive Orders into action that would completely change the way regulators and lawyers view these companies and make it possible for anyone to bring lawsuits against them. If there’s anything that keeps folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey up at night, it’s the prospect of being involved in legal lawfare with millions of people and their high-priced attorneys all at the same time.
Change in Washington is evolutionary, rarely revolutionary
Yet, despite this fertile environment for regulating and legislating Big Tech out of existence, will it really happen? Some kind of change has to happen, but keep in mind, there’s an election to worry about first and foremost. So any real revolutionary change will have to wait until 2021. And if the nasty coronavirus is still lurking around at that time, do we really want to be breaking up the biggest, most profitable companies in America when the rest of the economy is tanking? And so that takes us to the start of 2022 before anything substantial gets done. But wait – then there are the midterm elections again, and so it might be 2023 before anything gets done…
You get the idea here – it’s the reason why change is evolutionary and rarely revolutionary when it comes to Washington. Add in the fact that Wall Street doesn’t seem to care about privacy and censorship, as long as these companies are making billions of dollars, and it’s clear that there might be much less appetite for regulating these companies than popularly assumed. Even when the antitrust interviews with the Big Tech CEOs were being livestreamed, the stock prices of their companies continued to go up. Last summer, Wall Street’s reaction to a record-setting $5 billion fine against Facebook was, yes, a collective yawn.
So, for now, be content with a circus sideshow around issues like censorship, shadow banning and de-platforming. And be happy with a few choice soundbites on YouTube from big-time politicians chastising Big Tech. Most likely, companies like Facebook will escape without serious pain this time around, just like Microsoft slid out of the grasp of regulators a generation ago.