Reflections on Antitrust and Surveillance Capitalism

With Timothy Karr


 

Could you comment on the conversation around antitrust laws in the US, and how they have evolved over the past year?

Tim: I am not an antitrust lawyer. I am not an expert, I just want to preface that.

It’s been a little more than a year since the Cambridge Analytica revelations captured front page headlines. Around the world there are discussions, a lot of them in Washington DC, regarding antitrust, looking at whether Google’s dominance of web-search and Facebook’s dominance of social media (in that Facebook also owns other popular social media platforms like Instagram and Whatsapp), presents an antitrust problem.

These platforms pose problems for competition. Everyone is asking whether antitrust analysis considers certain standards of competition to determine if the power of these platforms has a negative impact on new market entrants. There has been a lot of interest in these questions. We have a presidential election in 2020 and politicians on both sides of the political isle are giving antitrust serious consideration. But the Democratic side are more open to the idea of antitrust enforcement.

Our approach at Free Press- while we are not an antitrust group, we do support the concept in certain cases, and we do fight media consolidation on other fronts. We are sort of nibbling around the edges of the issue here. But our concern is slightly broader. Breaking up Facebook would probably look like creating separate corporate entities for Instagram, Whatsapp, and Facebook.

But would it solve what we see as the deeper problem – the economic model of surveillance capitalism, whereby platforms harvest user information and sell it in ways that can be abusive? We don’t see that playing out under antitrust action alone.

Will Breaking Up Big Tech solve what we see as the deeper problem- the economic model of surveillance capitalism, whereby platforms harvest user information and sell it in ways that can be abusive? 

We think there is some merit to antitrust, looking at the problem of Facebook involves not just an either/ or approach, but a both/ and approach. You need to take a serious look at antitrust, you need to take a serious look at data privacy protection, and, you need to take a serious look at taxation. And then finally, create an integrated solution.

Facebook is very fearful of regulation, and is bending over backwards to appear to accommodate a lot of changes under the appearance of self- regulation. They have started a process of creating an oversight board, which is supposed to be an independent entity that provides binding oversight regarding Facebook’s content decisions- deplatforming, take downs and so forth.

This has sparked an interesting conversation around whether the oversight board could work. But I think essentially, things like this are more corporate PR than a remedy. You know Facebook is doing everything within it’s power to avoid regulation, and we need to take such measures for what they are worth.

There are things obviously going on in other countries which might serve as useful models for us in the US. And then, there’s also the need for a multinational approach. It’s chopsuey – bit of noodles and chicken and carrots and celery, and a little bit of spice, and maybe in the end we’ll come up with something digestible for all of us. But we would like to challenge this idea – that you can fix an economic model that is so fundamentally flawed and so fundamentally broken.

This model is beyond repair.

 

You know Facebook is doing everything within it’s power to avoid regulation, and we need to measures like it's oversight board, for what they are worth.

 

 

How are the Republican and Democratic parties responding to antitrust concerns around Big Tech in the US?

Tim: There is an interesting dynamic: Both parties recognize the growing power of social media, in particular Facebook, Google and Twitter. Amazon is also in the game of targeted advertising, they all are. Phone and cable companies now see this advertising plus data aggregation model as the future. So everyone is running towards this fundamentally flawed model.

There’s an interesting conversation, as well as a strange dichotomy at play. For Republicans, as they approach the election year, their main talking point is that social media platforms from Silicon Valley, which is a traditionally liberal part of the US, are censoring conservative view points. It’s a very powerful talking point for organizing purposes for the Republican party’s base.

The problem is that none of it is true. No one has shown definitively that this censorship of conservative views has happened in a systemic way. In fact, I would say that social media companies, some of whom are very fearful of the political establishment, are over correcting in ways that would give undue favor to some conservative view points that may not be worth much.

On the Democratic side, there is a more serious conversation around issues of antitrust and issues of privacy. It’s not exclusively theirs of course. There are some Republican members of Congress who are part of this conversation as well. There have been a lot of hearings-- a lot of grand standing. I think people recognize that this is an issue that resonates with the general population so they like to give speeches.

But I haven’t really seen any serious legislative effort to address the power of the platform economy. There are some efforts to address privacy, which deserve a good look. But as far as the issue that we’re concerned about- the economic issue, nobody has seriously looked at alternatives to this flawed model.

 


While a lot of the Big Tech debate focuses on competition policies to tackle rising monopolies and consumer harm, there is increasing recognition that the very business model of the platform economy as it currently stands (popularly referred to as 'surveillance capitalism') cannot be 'fixed'. We need alternatives.

Our next interview with Tim will examine what these alternative models of ownership in the platform economy, particularly focusing on the media industry.