Being a big tech CEO has its perks — you rake in the cash and control big conglomerates and its functions. But at what point does ultimate control become the business equivalent of a dictatorship?
The big four US tech corporations have only seen growth since inception. During this time, a lot of shady business deals and corporate management went down. Mostly it’s swept under the rug or marked ‘Confidential’ and everyone moves on. If someone tries to speak up, they’re neutralised. In the corporate sense of course.
This week we saw four of the top tech CEOs in the US face accusations of theft, abuse and power. The CEO antitrust hearing in Washington this week revealed a lot about big tech that everyone expected, but everyone was too afraid to address.
This hearing doesn’t involve countries outside the US per se, it’s important to realise what a corporate monopoly can do to an industry. This is particularly true for tech, which has thrived on competition. With great competition, comes great growth and innovation — something tech companies pride themselves in.
This week, the US House of Representatives’ antitrust subcommittee questioned the four big CEOs: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Alphabet and Google’s Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg before a panel. The four men called in via videoconferencing to allow for proper social distancing, where they faced accusations of abuse of market power, with the committee saying the four had crippled smaller rivals in order to dominate the market.
It follows an in-depth 13-month investigation into their dominance of the online world.
The four men were told they have “too much power” in the online world, and its’ effects include censoring political choices, spreading fake news and “killing” the engines of the US economy by buying out competitors — something Amazon and Facebook are accused of.
Their side of the story
All four of them had a chance to state their cases, with the majority trying to pull the ‘humble beginnings’ card, and all of them mentioning they’ve helped grow the very American economy that all Americans thrive on. Amazon has created millions of jobs in the country, while Apple became one of the leading smartphone manufacturers in the world.
There’s no denying all of these corporations have had a significant effect on the US economy, both good and bad. Because it is a capitalism-driven country, there are certain laws against uncompetitive behaviour. Some of these haven’t been updated or tailored for the new digital economy.
Unsurprisingly, the CEOs didn’t like this. Zuckerberg said: “We started with nothing and provided better products that people find valuable. As I understand our laws, companies aren’t bad just because they are big. Many large companies that fail to compete cease to exist.”
One of the more important accusations against the tech four was the idea of stealing content and ideas from smaller rivals in order to retain their dominance. “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?,” Democrat David Cicilline asked Google. This follows allegations that Google stole reviews from Yelp to bolster its review system. When Yelp didn’t agree to its terms, Google threatened to delist them from Search. That’s quite… unsportsmanlike?
Which is exactly the case. If you don’t really get the whole story, the best way to explain it is that these companies are acting unsportsmanlike. Instead of taking competitors head-on, they crush them, absorb them, steal their tactics or innovations and threaten them.
I reckon the most unsportsmanlike act was committed by Amazon, which uses its platform and insights to see which third-party products sell more. It uses this detailed insight to develop similar products under its own label and sell them to users. What a sneaky way to become the richest man in the world.
This had to happen
The whole thing was an odd experience to watch. Tech CEOs and congresspeople alike seem disassociated from real life, with one Republican in particular grilling CEOs on the censorship of right-wing conservatives. Sure, everyone has the right to free speech in the US of A, but that’s not what this hearing was about.
Cicilline’s closing statement summed it up nicely: “These companies as they exist today have monopoly power. Some need to be broken up, all need to be properly regulated and held accountable.”
These are the responsibilities we, as consumers, place on the shoulders of these tech giants. Yes, it’s important to develop and put out great products, but at what cost?