The question of how policymakers should respond to the power of big tech didn’t get a great deal of airtime at TechCrunch Disrupt last week, despite a number of investigations now underway in the United States (hi, Google).
It’s also clear that attention- and data-monopolizing platforms compel many startups to use their comparatively slender resources to find ways to compete with the giants — or hope to be acquired by them.
But there’s clearly a nervousness among even well-established tech firms to discuss this topic, given how much their profits rely on frictionless access to users of some of the gatekeepers in question.
Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston evinced this dilemma when TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino asked him if Apple’s control of the iOS App Store should be “reexamined” by regulators or whether it’s just legit competition.
“I think it’s an important conversation on a bunch of dimensions,” said Houston, before offering a circular and scrupulously balanced reply in which he mentioned the “ton of opportunity” app stores have unlocked for third-party developers, checking off some of Apple’s preferred talking points like “being able to trust your device” and the distribution the App Store affords startups.
“They also are a huge competitive advantage,” Houston added. “And so I think the question of … how do we make sure that there’s still a level playing field and so that owning an app store isn’t too much of an advantage? I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. I do think it’s an important conversation to be had.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said the question of whether large tech companies are too powerful needs to be reframed.
“Big per se is not bad,” she told TC’s Zack Whittaker. “We need to focus on whether competitors and consumers are being harmed. And, if that’s the case, what are the remedies?”
In recent years, U.S. lawmakers have advanced their understanding of digital business models — making great strides since Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg answered a question two years ago about how his platform makes money: “Senator, we sell ads.”
A House antitrust subcommittee hearing in July 2020 that saw the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple answer awkward questions and achieved a higher dimension of detail than the big tech hearings of 2018.
Nonetheless, there still seems to be a lack of consensus among lawmakers over how exactly to grapple with big tech, even though the issue elicits bipartisan support, as was in plain view during a Senate Judiciary Committee interrogation of Google’s ad business earlier this month.
On stage, Lofgren demonstrated some of this tension by discouraging what she called “bulky” and “lengthy” antitrust investigations, making a general statement in favor of “innovation” and suggesting a harder push for overarching privacy legislation. She also advocated at length for inalienable rights for U.S. citizens so platform manipulators can’t circumvent rules with their own big data holdings and some dark pattern design.