If you’ve been keeping up with the current buzz, regardless of partisan loyalties, you’ve undoubtedly noted at the forefront a barrage of questionable policies and leaked communications from Silicon Valley juggernauts like Facebook and Google.
Be it Facebook packaging and selling customer data en masse to political buyers or the Alphabet Corporation’s Google executive’s considering search engine censorship on company email threads (or according to Google merely ‘brainstorming’); the increasingly monopolistic barons of the virtual space have been showing concerning signs of maintaining less than unbiased integrity in their business practices.
US President, and if you believe him a chief victim of the internet magnates, Donald Trump has repeatedly decried what he describes to be unfair (and implicitly legally nebulous) partisan finagling over (perhaps somewhat ironically) his social media platforms. He isn’t all hot air on this with disturbing leaks of potential operationalization of employee bias from more and more sources and firms becoming more commonplace with each day.
But according to a new report from Bloomberg News, Trump may be planning on doing more than complaining as the news outlet obtained a draft of an executive order, “that would instruct federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to open probes into the practices of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc., and other social media companies.”
This is ‘Yuge’ news; and with the White House response verifying that the order draft is indeed in early stages, it appears the Trump administration is at least considering taking actions that could result in the most controversial trust dispute since AT&T. But is it needed?
The document doesn’t name any companies, but instead instructs US agencies to do two main things; investigate for any violations of US trust law, and then a month after the order’s issuance offer recommendations for actions to, “protect competition among online platforms and address online platform bias.” While this doesn’t directly translate to an antitrust case against say, Google or Facebook, it does heavily indicate that the administration is contemplating an assault from that direction.
The case isn’t particularly clear, absent discovery of violations by a theoretical investigation. While Facebook and Google are massive companies with substantial portions of market share in a myriad of media categories, they don’t fit traditional economic definitions of monopoly, largely thanks to competition from each other and a few fellow juggernauts like Apple and Microsoft.
More likely to be discovered and used as casus bellum are violations involving employees/executives inputting personal political and ideological bias into the background mechanisms of supposedly (and likely legally required) purely apolitical and socially secular platforms. If, say, Google were to be adjusting algorithms to skew results toward preferred politics, or even more egregiously, colluding with fellow Silicon Valley giants to push a narrative, there could be a case for heavy regulatory sanctions.
While any executive action remains purely in the conceptual stage at the moment, America’s public and commercial sectors should be looking to brace for what portents increasingly signal to be a coming war over the impartiality of the internet, and what enforcement of that might look like; especially if the fighting turns ugly.
Author’s Perspective: While bringing in the government to potentially attempt to ‘regulate the internet’ evokes thoughts of Chinese censorship or the EU’s theoretical banning of memes, I can’t claim to find any harm with simply investigating companies that, in total fairness, have been giving off extremely alarming indications of digital malpractice dating back to before Trump even held the presidency.
If illegal activity is discovered, however, this could culminate in one of the most crucial regulatory struggles of our time. Failure can come from two distinct directions; either the government fails to check the power of digital media monopolies leaving the public at large vulnerable to the whims of a few key influential players. Or, perhaps even more dangerous, it succeeds to far too deep an extent.
There’s nothing illegal about company owners and employees having private opinions (think Chik Fil A) it’s when those sentiments manifest in company services that consumers presume (and expect) to be unbiased that things start shifting into the realm of the illegal. Either way, this will be worth keeping an eye on as the few serious antitrust cases the US has seen in past decades have had a propensity to turn ugly. With our reliance on the digital economy drastically increasing with each passing quarter such a case could turn *historically* ugly.