At the beginning of this year, we wrote a post speculating on some of the trends we’ll be seeing throughout 2019. One of them was growing scrutiny over tech giants, and steps to fill a regulation and ethical vacuum where until now, firms in the likes of Facebook and Apple have been largely free to set their own rules and boundaries.
The wild west of the tech world was in part created by the dazzling advances and products pumped out by companies which muted concerns over their potential side effects and abuses, and also in part because the laws which regulated privacy, content distribution, and competition were mostly written in a time when the modern tech firm did not exist in the form it does today.
Over this year, the EU fined Google some €1.49bn for anticompetitive behaviors, bringing total penalties to over €8bn. In addition, Margrethe Vestager, the head of competition policy in Europe, is now in the “advanced stages” of a preliminary look into Amazon’s use of data to see whether it is being anticompetitive in pushing Amazon-made products to users, which of course could lead to a formal investigation. Meanwhile, the EU also approved proposals to force social media firms to remove terrorist-related content within an hour or face fines of up to 4% of global turnover.
All this to say that the EU is more than curious about the impact of tech firms on competition and society.
Europe’s spats with big tech is fairly well known. What is interesting, however, is that the US, which has traditionally been happy to let their tech sector roam free, is also stepping up the oversight rhetoric.
In early June 2019, the House Judiciary Committee announced a “top-to-bottom” investigation into the technology industry, saying that the scope will touch upon privacy issues, competition, and tech’s impact on journalism (fake news anyone?).
The news comes amid reports that the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are both taking steps towards potential probes of their own: with the DOJ looking into Apple and Google, and the FTC responsible for Amazon and Facebook.
While such probes may take years to materialize, if at all, these are undoubtedly the first steps of regulatory action.
These potential investigations are ostensibly focused on the corporate strategies of huge tech firms and whether they constitute unfair barriers to competition, but the eventual reach could be industry-wide.
The extent and consequences of such investigations are unclear. Eventually, they could lead to new laws governing tech firms’ behavior, fines, or potential lawsuits to break up the companies to even the playing field.
What is clear, though, is that while lawmakers can be slow to react, the momentum of the regulatory juggernaut is hard to ignore once it starts rolling.
It may also signal a new attitude towards emerging technologies — and the firms which produce them. For all the fanfare over incredible developments that could disrupt, redefine, and enhance our lives and work, there is also a growing recognition that if left unchecked, they could also make things worse.