One Thing to Pay Attention to in Tech’s Big Antitrust Hearing: Power

Is tech ‘breaking our democracy’? It’s beside the point.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As the leaders of four top tech companies testify in Congress today on antitrust issues, there’s a point that I think deserves some quick elucidation.

There is a strand of thought that ties the problems of online speech and digital media to the market dominance of, for example, Facebook, and recasts them as antitrust issues. While I think there is some nexus there, I worry it has confused a lot of people as to what this hearing, and the broader inquiry of which it is a part, is supposed to be focused on.

Whether or not the online speech problem is wholly or partly an antitrust problem, there are also real antitrust problems with the largest tech companies that have little to do with questions of hate speech, misinformation, sensationalism, “breaking our democracy,” etc. Let’s set Facebook aside for the moment for argument’s sake, and consider the other companies represented at today’s hearing. Amazon, Apple, and Google have all built dominant platforms of different kinds, which now play host to thriving online economies. Owning those platforms gives them huge power over the shape of those economies.

With both control of those economies and privileged access to their workings, these platforms have a golden opportunity to join the economy they created, and compete within it. Inevitably, the quest for growth drives them to do so. And without stronger antitrust regulation of platforms, their owners will always have incentive to dip into and siphon off for themselves the most profitable elements of the economies they control.

This caps the potential of any independent company that builds on them because if they succeed past a certain point, the platform owner will notice and build a rival product that enjoys home-field advantage over theirs — think about how Apple TV+ exists natively on iOS versus the Netflix app, which doesn’t allow sign-ups without the user independently navigating to an outside website.

I am not an expert in antitrust law but it’s plain to see that this is anticompetitive and antithetical to fair and open markets. And the more of the economy moves online, the more essential these platforms become. So, completely laying aside the also-very-important issues of how online platforms shape the flow of information, the question of how they shape the future of the economy is extremely important in itself.

More on this topic from OneZero:

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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