US/EU: Big Tech & regulators in 2020

2020 will likely see a race between big tech companies – particularly Google, Facebook, and Amazon – and the regulators that are scrutinizing them.

Margrethe Vestager, EU Competition Commissioner, has new powers allowing her to bring together the issues of privacy, monopoly and security. She has called for the burden of proof in antitrust cases to be put on the larger companies (small ones often go out of business fighting the titans, who have deep pockets and big legal staffs).

Ms Vestager has floated the idea of using obscure rules that could force companies to “cease and desist” from activities considered problematic while waiting for the outcome of antitrust cases. These include competing in allegedly unfair ways on their platforms against their own customers, or refusing to allow audit of algorithmic bias.

Ms Vestager has advanced the idea that Big Tech should have to show how it helps consumers, rather than merely that it does not harm them. She wants to connect the dots between how companies use data — and whether they might layer from different sources (search, handsets, apps, etc) in ways that are anti-competitive. A company like Facebook, for example, may garner unfair advantages by combining data from various apps that it has acquired.

The Federal Trade Commission is considering an injunction against Facebook on the sharing of data between Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. This could force not only new disclosures on data value and how much it is worth to the company (something that states like California are pushing for) but also more algorithmic transparency about how data are used.

We shall see more scrutiny of whether Amazon, which dominates ecommerce outside China, has an unfair advantage against its own suppliers — since it both owns the network and also sells its own products on it, thus competing against them. History records that 19th century US railway companies, which owned networks and conducted commerce on them, were broken up as monopolies.