With the U.S. government and the attorneys general of numerous U.S. states starting probes against four of the biggest “Big Tech” firms — shorthand for Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple — the Wall Street Journal is helpfully reviewing both sides of the argument, presenting the gist of potential government cases and the companies’ likely response. While concerns about their monopolistic practices are well known, it’s interesting to note that a big part of the companies’ defenses would also sound fairly familiar: they’re just trying to help consumers (read: us) by offering cheaper, more convenient services. And if smaller competitors happen to be ground into a pulp as part of this noble mission, so be it!
- The government’s case would point to similar practices in most of the Big Tech cases. For example Google not only dominates online search, but has snapped up potential competitors like DoubleClick to extend its control into the advertising ecosystem — and allegedly uses its search dominance to skew results towards its own products. In 2016 Google also began requiring advertisers to use its own system to place ads on YouTube, a Google property.
- In its defense, Google can point to a couple facts that make it look rather different than previous monopolies: most notably, it’s all free, so there is no direct cost to consumers as in the monopolistic days of old. Further, as WSJ notes, “Google’s actions are geared toward goals like giving users the information they want, as quickly as possible. Sometimes that means directing consumers to Google sites and services, the company says.”
- Similarly Facebook might also be accused of squashing competition by buying up potential competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp, in addition to gathering all kinds of information about users without their knowledge or consent. Further, the lack of an effective alternative to Facebook forces users to submit to these practices.
- Facebook can respond, however, that it doesn’t enjoy anything like a monopoly on users’ attention in a fast-evolving online world, and indeed the share of time spent by individuals on Facebook versus other online platforms has decreased.
- What’s more, Facebook is just trying to help, with the WSJ summarizing the argument: “Facebook has acquired companies that have complementary strengths to make its social-media platform a better experience for consumers—and not with the intent of putting a competitor out of business.”
- With Amazon, which stands accused of bullying vendors and sidelining their products with its own offerings, the company’s counterargument is even more predictable since it is actually able to provide lower prices: “Amazon’s growth has been fueled by a determination to offer consumers low prices and it has competed fairly and legally against rivals… That approach has benefited consumers in the form of competitive pricing, great selection and unprecedented convenience,'” per a company spokesman.
- In conclusion: it’s our collective fault they have to act this way! Shame on all of us!