- The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law released a major report on four companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, saying that they all engaged in anti-competitive monopoly tactics
- Either via acquiring their competition, using self-preferencing tactics, or taking advantage of their massive stockpiles of consumer data, the report says that these companies have established and maintained dominance and have exploited their power to minimize competition.
- The subcommittee has suggested sweeping antitrust reform in response to this, an action that is supported by Democrats but opposed by Republicans.
- The companies have responded to this report, defending themselves and their practices.
Findings in Subcommittee Report
The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law released a lengthy report on Tuesday accusing Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google of engaging in anti-competitive tactics to enjoy monopoly power in their respective arenas.
The report was the result of a 16-month investigation into those companies and is around 450 pages long. The subcommittee has a Democratic majority and has suggested sweeping reform to antitrust laws as a result of their findings.
During the investigation, the CEOs of each company gave testimonies about their business practices and the evidence suggesting that they have exploited their power in digital markets in abusive ways. The report says their answers were “often evasive and non-responsive, raising fresh questions about whether they believe they are beyond the reach of democratic oversight.”
While the report notes that each company is different, it concludes that their business practices all have the same issues and that each acts as a gatekeeper in key channels of distribution.
“By controlling access to markets, these giants can pick winners and losers throughout our economy,” the report says. “They not only wield tremendous power, but they also abuse it by charging exorbitant fees, imposing oppressive contract terms, and extracting valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them.”
It also claims that these companies use their gatekeeper status to maintain their power by surveilling potential rivals so they can either buy them out, copy them, or cut out their competitive threats by other means.
“Whether through self-preferencing, predatory pricing, or exclusionary conduct, the dominant platforms have exploited their power in order to become even more dominant,” the subcommittee wrote.
“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” the report adds. “Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google has come at a price.”
Amazon and Facebook Acquisitions
The report says that Amazon got to the top by acquiring competitors, and now, the company’s control reaches across business lines “in ways that undermine free and fair competition.”
“As a result of Amazon’s dominance, other businesses are frequently beholden to Amazon for their success,” the report says.
Much of the subcommittee’s findings with Amazon pertain to its relationship with its third-party sellers. There are 2.3 million active third-party sellers on the platform, 37% of which rely on Amazon for their sole source of income. While Amazon publicly calls their third party sellers “partners,” documents studied in the report reveal that behind closed doors they are referred to as “internal competitors.” The report says this creates an inherent conflict of interest in the company, which then incentives Amazon to exploit its access to competing seller’s data and information.
The report also claims that Amazon’s ability to acquire so much of its competition has not only led to fewer consumer choices but has also reinforced its stockpile of consumer data.
“Amazon is first and foremost a data company, they just happen to use it to sell stuff,” a former employee told the subcommittee.
The report accused Facebook of similar acquisition and data exploitation tactics.
“The company used its data advantage to create superior market intelligence to identify nascent competitive threats and then acquire, copy, or kill these firms,” the report says.
“In the absence of competition, Facebook’s quality has deteriorated over time, resulting in worse privacy protections for its users and a dramatic rise in misinformation on its platform.”
One of Facebook’s largest and most prominent acquisitions occurred back in 2012 when the social media giant absorbed Instagram. Instagram is now so massive that Facebook’s biggest competition is, in many ways, itself. A former Instagram employee said that the head of the app wanted Instagram to grow as widely as possible, which was discouraged by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who did not want the photo-sharing app to compete with his social networking platform.
“It was collusion, but within an internal monopoly,” the employee said. “If you own two social media utilities, they should not be allowed to shore each other up. It’s unclear to me why this should not be illegal. You can collude by acquiring a company.”
Self-Preferencing at Apple and Google
When it came to Apple, much of the subcommittee’s findings had to do with the App Store. The report said that while the company’s ecosystem has “significant benefits” for both app developers and customers, the company still functions on an extreme and controlling bias. This control creates barriers for competition and allows Apple to discriminate against rivals so it can promote its own apps.
“Apple also uses its power to exploit app developers through misappropriation of competitively sensitive information and to charge app developers supra-competitive prices within the App Store,” the subcommittee said.
When it comes to Google, the report says that small businesses, entrepreneurs and major corporations alike depend on the web giant for traffic and have no alternate search engine to adequately serve as a substitute. The report accuses Google of conducting an “an aggressive campaign to undermine vertical search providers, which Google viewed as a significant threat.”
“Google appears to be siphoning off traffic from the rest of the web, while entities seeking to reach users must pay Google steadily increasing sums for ads. Numerous market participants analogized Google to a gatekeeper that is extorting users for access to its critical distribution channel, even as its search page shows users less relevant results,” the report says.
The report also says that Google uses anti-competitive contracts. For example after buying the Android operating system, Google used contractual restrictions so that Google’s monopoly could extend beyond desktop to mobile. Those contracts required Google apps to be pre-installed or given default status.
As a result of these findings, the subcommittee said that there is a “pressing need for legislative action and reform.” The report then laid out extensive and detailed suggestions, which would lead to some of the most sweeping antitrust laws against these tech giants. Those reforms include addressing anti-competitive conduct in digital markets, strengthening merger and monopolization enforcement, and improving the sound administration of the antitrust laws.
The report listed out dozens of potential policies to that could be in this kind of legislation, including enacting nondiscrimination requirements that would prevent these companies from favoring their products and boosting them ahead of rivals; a presumptive prohibition against future mergers and acquisitions by the dominant platforms; reasserting the anti-monopoly goals of the antitrust laws and their centrality to ensuring a healthy and vibrant democracy; and restoring congressional oversight of antitrust laws and bringing federal antitrust agencies to their full strength.
These recommendations come from House Democrats and are not fully supported by Republicans. While many on the right oppose much of what the Democrats have put on the table when it comes to this, some see it as a starting point for negotiations.
The tech companies, for their part, are all on the defense when it comes to the report’s findings and suggestions. All four are advocating against any legislation that would limit their practices and maintaining that none of their behavior has been anti-competitive. Now, as far as what these companies are saying, well they all seem to be on the defense.
“All large organizations attract the attention of regulators, and we welcome that scrutiny. But large companies are not dominant by definition, and the presumption that success can only be the result of anti-competitive behavior is simply wrong,” Amazon said in a blog post.
Facebook told CNBC that the company is an American success story with plenty of competition.
“Acquisitions are part of every industry, and just one way we innovate new technologies to deliver more value to people. Instagram and WhatsApp have reached new heights of success because Facebook has invested billions in those businesses,” the company added.
Apple released a statement with similar messaging to that of Amazon and Facebook.
“We have always said that scrutiny is reasonable and appropriate but we vehemently disagree with the conclusions reached in this staff report with respect to Apple,” the company said.
“We’ve built the App Store to be a safe and trusted place for users to discover and download apps and a supportive way for developers to create and sell apps globally.”
Google also put out a blog post addressing the report, saying that the suggestions laid in it are not best for the American people.
“Americans simply don’t want Congress to break Google’s products or harm the free services they use every day,” Google wrote. “The goal of antitrust law is to protect consumers, not help commercial rivals.”
See what others are saying: (CNBC) (New York Times) (Washington Post)
Tech Ethicist Tristan Harris Talks Council For Responsible Social Media, TikTok, Twitter, and More
Harris is part of a bipartisan group that is aiming to reform social media for good.
The Council For Responsible Social Media
Tristan Harris, the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, understands why many people view TikTok as a harmless app with jokes and dances. Harris, however, sees the Chinese-owned platform as a national security risk.
“During the Cold War, would you have allowed the Soviet Union to control television programming for the entire western world, including Saturday morning cartoons, the ‘Teletubbies’ and ‘Sesame Street?’” he said during an interview with Rogue Rocket.
That’s what he argues is happening with TikTok. The app, which is the most downloaded in the world, is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech company with ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Harris says we are “effectively outsourcing our media environment to, in the case of the United States, the number one geopolitical competitor.”
National security issues with TikTok, the extreme polarization caused by Facebook and Twitter, and a slew of other issues are among the reasons Harris and several other bipartisan leaders formed The Council For Responsible Social Media last month.
Co-Chaired by former congressman Dick Gephardt and former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts Kerry Healey, the group was made in partnership with the nonprofit IssueOne. Other members include Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, former Sen. Claire McCaskill, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Harris.
It aims to pressure tech companies and politicians to make social media less harmful in every facet.
“What are the wins we can get on the scoreboard?” Harris explained. “Things like, frankly, banning TikTok or otherwise forcing a total sale of TikTok?…Can we do things like pass the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act?”
The TikTok Problem
When it comes to TikTok, the idea of banning it is not new. Former president Donald Trump attempted to do so in 2020, and earlier this month, a Federal Communications Commission official urged the U.S. to do away with it.
In Harris’ eyes, the threat posed by TikTok looms much larger than just mindless entertainment.
“When we outsource our media environment to a CCP-controlled company, we are effectively outsourcing our voting machine to the CCP,” Harris said. “How do you know who to vote for? Why is it that you know more about Marjorie Taylor Greene and [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] than the other hundreds of members of Congress? Because the attention economy rewards certain people to rise to the top.”
Social media apps, TikTok included, favor people that are more likely to be divisive, on either end of the political spectrum. Harris referred to this as “amplifiganda,” something the CCP can use to interfere with another nation’s political and cultural happenings.
“It’s strategically amplifying who are the voices I want to hear from and who are the voices I don’t want to hear from,” he added. “Without firing a single shot, without creating a single piece of new propaganda, I can simply amplify the politicians and videos that I want you to be seeing.”
In China, domestic users receive what Harris calls the “spinach” version of the app, that largely includes educational content, science experiments, and patriotism videos. He says it is very different from the scroll-for-hours version the U.S. and other international markets receive.
Harris, however, does not think this was part of “a deliberate plan” or that there’s a “large mustache that’s being twirled somewhere in China.” Rather, this is just an after-the-fact consequence of TikTok succeeding at being highly addictive, and China simply regulating it for itself.
Banning the app is not the only solution, Harris noted. Officials could also attempt to force a purchase of TikTok. A similar case happened in the past with Grindr. After a U.S. foreign investment commission said the app’s Chinese ownership was a security risk, the dating app was sold to a U.S.-based group.
“And now it’s not that the company is partially in China or partially in the U.S., or the data is on an American server while the design decisions are made in Bejing, it’s not like that,” Harris explained. “They forced the entire sale.”
“Anything less than that with TikTok would be insufficient.”
Despite the numerous issues posed by nearly every social media platform, enacting meaningful change will be no small feat. The Council For Responsible Social Media has outlined several steps it plans on taking, including awareness campaigns and hearings that could inspire action.
On the legislative front, this could involve the passage of the aforementioned Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, which was introduced by bipartisan senators last year and would “require social media companies to provide vetted, independent researchers and the public with access to certain platform data.”
Harris does not think this bill is a cure-all, he does think it should be a no-brainer for politicians to pass.
“It won’t change the DNA of the cancer cell that is social media, it’ll be more like the cancer cell is printing quarterly reports about what it is doing to society, but that’s still a better world than having a cancer cell where you don’t know what it’s doing,” he said.
Many advocates believe transparency is key when it comes to reforming social media, as it educates the general public about what these apps are really doing.
The Future of Twitter
Harris thinks education about social media has inadvertently grown over the last several weeks as billionaire Elon Musk took over Twitter. The process has proven to be quite chaotic, but it has also forced people to learn about Twitter’s problems.
“Twitter has already been a chaos-making, inflammation-for-profit machine. Elon buying Twitter doesn’t change that, he’s just running the inflammation-for-profit machine,” Harris said.
Musk’s acquisition has created a substantial financial bind and forced the mogul into a position where he has to turn engagement and revenue up. This has involved cutbacks on content moderation and laying off staff that worked on trust and safety.
“He has to figure out a way to lower costs and increase revenue, which unfortunately basically moves the whole system into a more and more dangerous direction,” Harris claimed, though he did say he does not view this as a character flaw on Musk’s part, rather just the reality of how these apps operate.
When it comes to fixing the root problems at Twitter, Harris thinks Musk has his eyes on the wrong target by focusing on censorship and free speech.
“It has to do with Twitter being a bad video game in which citizens earn or score the most points by adding inflammation to cultural fault lines,” he explained.
“If we’re playing a video game, and you earn the most points by finding a new cultural war faultline and inflaming it better than some other guy, you’re an inflammation entrepreneur,” he continued. “Turning citizens into inflammation entrepreneurs for profit is how we destroy democracies.”
Harris said that if Musk wants to change Twitter for the better, he has to “change the video game of what Twitter is” so that people are not rewarded for inflammation, but for consensus.
Meta Fined $24.7 Million for Campaign Finance Violations As Profits Fall 50%
A judge found the company violated Washington State’s campaign finance law more than 800 times since 2020 despite having previously settled a lawsuit for identical violations in 2018.
Judge Fines Facebook
A judge in Washington state slapped Meta with a $24.7 million fine on Wednesday after finding it had intentionally violated the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws.
In a statement, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson described the judgment as “the largest campaign finance penalty anywhere in the country — ever.”
According to the judge, Meta violated Washington’s Fair Campaign Practices Act 822 times. Each count carries a maximum fine of $30,000.
The law, which was passed in 1972, requires entities that sell political ads to make certain information public, including the names and addresses of ad buyers, the targets of the ads, how the ads were financed, and the total number of views. While TV stations and newspapers have followed this law for decades in Washington, Meta has continually refused to comply with the law, even arguing unsuccessfully in court that the act is unconstitutional because it “unduly burdens political speech” and is “virtually impossible to fully comply with.”
The matter has been a long, ongoing battle for Meta. In 2018, when Meta was still Facebook, Ferguson sued the platform for violating the same law. As part of a settlement, the social media network agreed to pay $238,000 and commit to transparency in political advertising.
At the time, Facebook said it would rather stop selling ads in Washington state than adhere to the law, but it continued to sell ads while also still refusing to comply. Ferguson responded by filing another suit in 2020, which resulted in the Wednesday ruling.
Meta’s Financial Woes
Although $24.7 million may seem like pocket change to a multi-billion dollar corporation, the fines come as Meta is facing unprecedented financial troubles.
Also on Wednesday, the company reported a 50% drop in profits for the third quarter of 2022. The decline follows a recent trend as Meta’s earnings continue to suffer from slowing ad sales, fierce competition from platforms like TikTok, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to spend massive amounts of money on developing the metaverse.
In July, the tech giant posted its first-ever sales decline since becoming a public company. Meta’s stock has also nose-dived over 60% this year. The market reacted poorly to the reported drop in profits Wednesday, sending the stock down nearly 20%.
Despite the fact that the past year has been one of the worse ever for the business following Zuckerberg’s decision to rebrand as Meta and go all-in with the metaverse, his commitment remains fervent.
According to reports, during a call with analysts Wednesday, the CEO argued that people would “look back decades from now” and “talk about the importance of the work that was done here” in regards to the metaverse and virtual reality.
See what others are saying: (The Associated Press) (Axios) (The New York Times)
ByteDance Looks To Expand Music Streaming Service in Potential Threat to Spotify
The move could strengthen the power TikTok currently wields over the music industry.
Talks With Music Labels
TikTok parent company ByteDance is looking to expand its music streaming service, Resso, in a move that could shift both music consumption and marketing, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In a report on Wednesday, the Journal said that ByteDance is currently in talks with music labels about bringing Resso to over a dozen new markets. Currently, the platform is only available in Brazil, India, and Indonesia. While the United States would not be part of this next growth phase, the China-based company has its eyes on an eventual global expansion.
According to the Journal’s sources, in the long run, ByteDance hopes to integrate Resso and TikTok so that users who discover music on the video app can then subscribe and listen on the audio platform. Such a move could pose a threat to audio streaming giants like Spotify.
Over the past several years, TikTok has become increasingly powerful in the music industry. Its short videos paired with snappy soundbites make it prime for songs to go viral, and as a result, it has launched the careers of some of today’s biggest stars.
Lil Nas X was propelled to fame after releasing “Old Town Road” to TikTok. Millions of users began using the track on the app for their viral videos, leading the song to dominate both radio play and streaming. It eventually broke the record as the longest-running song atop the Billboard 100.
Likewise, Olivia Rodrigo went from a Disney+ actress to one of the biggest names in music overnight after her debut single “drivers license” blew up on TikTok. That song, as well as her follow-up singles, topped the charts and landed her multiple Grammy Awards.
Because TikTok is where so many young people discover music, expanding Resso would allow ByteDance to keep its user base under its own umbrella. It could also consolidate work for artists who already market their music on TikTok.
This expansion, however, will likely not come without complications. Sources told the Journal that even though this could potentially serve as another revenue source for TikTok, the biggest hurdle will be figuring out how much to pay out to labels. Some record companies have even expressed direct doubt about Resso to ByteDance.
While TikTok has seen exponential revenue growth over the years, making money from music streaming is a challenge. As a result, Spotify has had to lean heavily on podcasting.
When it comes to Resso, reports say most users do not actually pay for it. Like Spotify, it has an ad-supported free tier. According to the Journal, very few free users become paid subscribers.
The app’s popularity is increasing in the three countries it is available in, though. According to Insider, in Jan. 2021, the app had just a 4.8% market share of monthly active users in music streaming in India. That was just a fraction of the 18% held by Spotify at the time.
By Jan. 2022, that gap got significantly smaller. Resso’s 17% share is only slightly less than Spotify’s 22.8% share.
Wednesday’s news about ByteDance’s intentions to grow the app sent Spotify’s stock sliding, though it had picked up again by mid-day Thursday.