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    Weakened democracy is another harm caused by Big Tech and their monopolies – finally the US Department of Justice takes action

    November 2020

    House lawmakers who spent the last 15 months investigating the practices of the world’s largest technology companies have said that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google had exercised and abused their monopoly power and called for the most sweeping changes to antitrust laws in half a century.

    In a 449-page report presented by the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic leadership, lawmakers said the four companies had turned from once “scrappy” start-ups into “the kings of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons.” They said the companies had abused their dominant positions, setting and often dictating prices and rules for commerce, search, advertising, social networking and publishing.

    To amend the inequities, the lawmakers recommended restoring competition by effectively breaking up the companies, emboldening the agencies that police market concentration and throwing up hurdles for the companies to acquire start-ups. They also proposed changing antitrust laws.

    Last month the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has accused Google suppressing competition in internet search in a lawsuit that marks the beginning of a landmark antitrust case against the largest technology groups last seen in 1990s against Microsoft.

    Each day reveals in my opinion new harms caused by big technology companies not only to competition – and more important – to democracy and public values. Hate speech goes viral, advertising companies oversee huge information ecosystems, voters are manipulated, and private firms sell intrusion systems that rival those of intelligence agencies.

    These are only a few examples on the growing list of democratic harms. Yet lawmakers still turn predominantly to market mechanisms when they seek to bolster the democratic accountability of technology companies. Powerful tools such as antitrust regulation can serve as a model for their efforts. But in my opinion it is time for democratic principles to be safeguarded more explicitly.

    The EU, for example, has recently announced new plans to curb the market power of the largest internet companies. The US judiciary committee has as mentioned launched a staff report seeking to ensure competition is maintained in digital markets. Such moves are designed to ensure fair play by preventing price discrimination, monopolies or the formation of cartels – all fundamental economic rates, but I believe that they have a quite narrow focus. Furthermore, cases lead to years of litigation and sometimes can be hard to prove.

    But to be fair, the US report goes beyond economics. It is explicit about the negative impact on democracy that stems from the power of tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. It recommends the value of “reasserting the anti-monopoly goals of the antitrust laws and their centrality to ensuring a health and vibrant democracy”.

    An updating of antitrust measures is needed to address some specific features of digitization. However, I believe that this still would not address directly the harms done to public values and democracy. They are viewed as an externality of tech companies’ abuse of market power. As the antitrust hammer is one of the strongest regulatory mechanisms, everything now looks like a nail. Yet harming democracy is not just a consequence of an abuse of market power, or of antitrust violations. Technology can have negative effects on democracy without such breaches.

    To see why, please follow the logic of market power. If companies can prove they are not monopolies, then any harm they do to democracy would no be met with sanctions. Similarly, if tech giants are broken up for antitrust purposes, would the effects of their business practices on democracy necessarily improve? There are already multiple small companies that build facial recognition systems or private surveillance systems, all of which can deeply affect democratic principles. Given the smaller size and the vibrancy of the market that they operate in, such companies are unlikely to be subjected to antitrust investigation. Nor is there much to “break up”. Yet such companies should still be required to respect democratic principles and be held to account when they do not.

    Meanwhile, Europe’s new Democratic Action Plan is in the pipeline. This seeks to ensure that EU citizens can participate in the democratic system through informed decision-making free from unlawful interference and manipulation. It does begin to address technology’s threats to electoral integrity. But it could go further by having a mandate to assess when other democratic principles are imperiled, and the power to act when violations are proved.

    Borrowing from the mechanisms of antitrust enforcement can be helpful here. Antitrust regulators have powerful mandates to obtain information about the inner working of companies and the intentions of their executives. Empowering them to probe, investigate, discover and assess companies’ respect for democratic principles would ensure broader and more explicit accountability. Indeed, regulators should be able to assess all sectors for harms done to democracy, using specific skill sets. These are urgently needed to grapple with how the information architecture of the digital world affects public debate, and how algorithmic bias can lead to discrimination. At the moment, fast-evolving algorithms and data-flows are all largely handled in a way that is invisible to most of us including researchers and regulators – a result of trade secret protections and a lack of capacity and skill on the part of the regulators.

    Hoping for antitrust and market rules to solve the harm done by technology companies to democracy is just that: a hope. Instead, direct enforcement against violations of democratic principles is in my opinion urgently required. If, for example, predictive artificial intelligence violates the presumption of innocence, justice is denied. Democracy should be explicitly protected, especially as it faces new threats stemming from technological disruption.