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The Myth of Big Tech’s Comeuppance

Facebook, Google, and Twitter are under bipartisan pressure in Washington, but that doesn't mean they'll be reined in next year.

Paul Marotta/Getty

For the first time since the dot-com bust, tech companies are running scared. Last year exposed the ease with which social media could be weaponized, as platforms once hailed as revolutionary for democracy became tools for spreading disinformation and hate speech—and even enabled foreign interference in the presidential election. And this year, it became a rare point of consensus among many Republicans and Democrats that tech companies were both destructive and possessed too much power. What, then, does 2018 hold for Big Tech? A “reckoning” in Washington, according to Axios.

The Department of Justice’s decision to sue to block a merger between AT&T and Verizon could, as Axios’ David McCabe notes, set a precedent for breaking up tech companies. Congressional probes into Russian involvement in the 2016 election will continue into 2018, meaning that Google, Facebook, and Twitter will continue to face political pressure. Antitrust is creeping into the platforms of some 2018 and 2020 Democratic contenders. In this light, as Axios’ Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei argued in a separate piece, Mark Zuckerberg’s whistlestop-esque jaunt through America should be seen not as the foundation of presidential ambition, but as a calculated PR campaign aimed at shoring up the public and political perception of Facebook.

Big tech is certainly in for a turbulent year, if not longer, but there’s little indication that big tech will suffer any real consequences in the near term. While Democrats and Republicans agree on the problem, their ideological differences suggest that a solution is far off, if not impossible. And the tech companies will use their growing lobbying might to ensure as much.

Many on the right and left agree that the tech giants have too much power. But from there, the critiques shift. Those on the left increasingly consider Amazon, Google, and Facebook to be monopolies that need government intervention. When Amazon acquired Whole Foods earlier this year—leading many to speculate that the company would quickly become one of the largest grocers in the country—Congressman Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, tweeted that he was “deeply worried” about the move. “This as a case study for how we think about antitrust policy,” he said. “It’s the particulars here.” For decades, mergers have been evaluated only by how they affect prices, but that understanding is starting to shift. Speaking to The Atlantic, Khanna insisted that mergers be evaluated with broader concerns in mind, including consumer choice, wages, and the effect on small businesses.

Other Democrats have turned the screws on Silicon Valley by emphasizing Russia’s weaponization of social media during the 2016 election. “They’ve grown so quickly,” Senator Mark Warner, who built a $200 million fortune as a tech executive and investor, told The New York Times. “I’m not sure they’ve fully realized the implications of all their power.” Warner has also co-authored a bill that would require tech companies to disclose who purchases political advertisements, and he has pushed the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which he’s a member, to place greater scrutiny on Google, Facebook, and Twitter. More recently, Warner has toyed with the idea of scrutinizing the way these companies psychologically manipulate users—possibly paving the way for Congress to treat tech companies like tobacco companies.

Some on the right appear open to regulatory solutions, too. In July, a month before Trump strategist Steve Bannon left the White House, the Intercept revealed that he was toying with the idea of treating Facebook and Google as utilities. “Bannon’s basic argument, as he has outlined it to people who’ve spoken with him, is that Facebook and Google have become effectively a necessity in contemporary life,” Ryan Grim reported. “Indeed, there may be something about an online social network or a search engine that lends itself to becoming a natural monopoly, much like a cable company, a water and sewer system, or a railroad.” But this view, even if sincere, is unorthodox among conservatives, who are skeptical of using the government’s power to check large corporations. With the exception of the decision to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger—which some believe to be politically motivated—the Trump administration has largely pushed deregulation. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, just successfully repealed “net neutrality,” which treated broadband internet as a public utility.

Instead, many on the right have seen big tech as another front in a larger culture war. Earlier this week, Politico reported on a growing conservative narrative: Tech companies are using their immense power to further their liberal political agenda and silence speech on the right. These arguments have largely centered around Twitter’s decision to remove its blue check mark, which verifies a user’s identity, from the profiles of those accused of hate speech and other abusive behavior. According to this narrative, the problem isn’t so much that tech companies are too powerful, but they use their power for progressive ends. This “sustained assault could, over time, turn the tech industry into a conservative punching bag, like Hollywood or the news media,” wrote Politico’s Nancy Scola. “And that threatens to alienate parts of tech’s vast user base that spans the ideological spectrum.”

Big tech already a punching bag, and not just for conservatives. Republicans and Democrats are using these companies to project ideas about economic power, free speech, and the 2016 election. But Scola is right that the consequences are more likely to be felt in the marketplace than on Capitol Hill: “For tech companies, flush with cash and facing little risk of regulation from Republicans, the intensifying rhetoric poses minimal short-term danger in Washington.” There may be a growing interest on the right in punishing Silicon Valley, but largely for political, rather than policy, reasons: Republicans see these companies as being adversarial, but remain reluctant to use the government to rein them in. For the moment, they’re content to treat these companies as liberal boogeymen. When Trump threatens Amazon on Twitter, it’s because CEO Jeff Bezos owns the adversarial Washington Post—not because he believes greater governmental oversight is the answer.

That could very well change, but the political consensus for a big tech comeuppance simply doesn’t exist at the moment. As Scola notes, the necessary regulatory changes are hardly imminent, with Republicans in power. And there are political risks for Democrats in taking on such a powerful, deep-pocketed industry. This lack of common ground is a gift to the likes of Facebook and Google, which have used the past year to greatly expand their footprint on Capitol Hill. Tech companies may have been slow to recognize that the political winds were shifting, but they’re still much swifter than government action. A reckoning may yet come, but the status quo—in which a handful of tech companies dominate American life, both online and off—is not going to change in a meaningful way any time soon.