If you need evidence that Big Tech firms are starting to worry about the growing movement to diffuse their immense market power, look no further than their newest scare tactic: using China as an excuse to avoid antitrust scrutiny.
Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and the nonprofit proxies they pay to defend them have put a lot of effort into trying to convince America that subjecting Big Tech to more stringent antitrust enforcement or regulation would have dire consequences. They’ve warned that innovation would suffer, but that rings hollow when so many of the new innovative companies are already being bought up (and then often shut down) by Big Tech.
They’ve suggested that antitrust action might result in the loss of the free services we’ve come to depend upon. But how do they call their services “free” when we pay for them by giving them all of our personal data, which they store and monetize, and when they rely on our content to make their platforms valuable in the first place?
Big Tech firms have told us we should be grateful for the superior quality of their services, which could suffer if they were broken up. But then again, one could argue that Google Search was better before it was filled with ads.
YouTube was better before its algorithms tried to corrupt our children and amplify the reach of terrorists. Facebook was better before it censored people of faith and conservatives, while protecting those who post revenge porn. Instagram was better before it drove our teenagers to anxiety and depression. Amazon was better before it silenced conservative authors and raised questions about its influence on a multibillion-dollar defense contract.
Having failed with each of those claims, Big Tech has turned to a new bogeyman: China. Antitrust enforcement actions against Big Tech—or legislation aimed at restoring and protecting competition in Big Tech markets—would risk crippling America’s ability to combat the growing threat from Communist China, or so the line goes. The cynicism would be offensive if the argument weren’t so laughable.
It’s not just lobbyists bringing these arguments to my office and others on Capitol Hill. Earlier this summer, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in an interview, “These gross proposals like breaking them up and so forth, it’s not going to be helpful because it’s going to set us back against China.”
Last month, the National Security Institute began a series “examining the national security implications of antitrust challenges at home and abroad.” The first panel featured Big Tech defenders suggesting the antitrust laws were written for late-19th-century monopolists and are too outdated to deal with Big Tech, and that Big Tech is a driver for research that is essential to national security. Antitrust scrutiny, they implied, might hinder the companies’ ability to compete with China, who won’t be imposing the same restraints on their own companies.
Like every other excuse Big Tech has made, this too rings hollow and we should flatly reject it. That doesn’t mean the antitrust laws should be enforced in the absence of actual anticompetitive harm. Nor does it mean that we should radically alter our antitrust laws to embrace a “big is bad” philosophy. But the idea that Big Tech should be treated with kid gloves makes no sense. The fact is, American ingenuity is strong enough to compete and win on the merits without coddling or amnesty from our antitrust laws.
Competition, and the innovation and disruption that facilitate it, are what made these companies American success stories. That same competition, innovation, and disruption are what will keep them at their best or make way for the next great American success story. You see, competition in Big Tech doesn’t threaten American, it threatens the monopolists—and that makes America stronger.
Insulating American companies from competition out of a fear of foreign competitors will do the opposite of what Big Tech claims to want: we will be stuck with stagnant monopolists too complacent either to benefit American consumers or to protect us from foreign threats.
In fact, it is Big Tech companies themselves that pose the greatest threat when it comes to China. They not only can’t protect us from foreign threats, but in some cases actively cooperate with them.
Google has been accused of working with the Chinese military, and has acknowledged developing a filtered version of its search engine to satisfy Chinese censors. Amazon has been working with a Chinese partner to expand its web-hosting services in the highly censored country.
The New York Times revealed earlier this year that Apple—which assembles nearly all of its products in China— has stored data on Chinese government servers, shared customer data with the Chinese government, removed apps from its App Store to appease the Chinese government, and banned apps from a critic of the Chinese Communist Party. The Times also alleged that Facebook was courting the Chinese government in 2016 by developing a censorship tool. Facebook has admitted to sharing data with Chinese state-owned companies, and last year it undertook to expand its Chinese ad business.
These are the benevolent corporate heroes who are going to save us from the Chinese threat? Give me a break.
Far from saving us, it seems like the habits of their new Chinese friends are rubbing off on our Big Tech big brothers. In a way, Silicon Valley is helping America keep up with China: now we too have censored speech on the internet, constant surveillance, and tightly controlled marketplaces.
Instead of embracing the very crony capitalism that has been so destructive to American prosperity in the past, American firms should spend more energy competing on the merits for Americans’ business, and less time cozying up to Chinese bureaucrats. The free market should pick winners and losers, not Communist apparatchiks.
This whole episode leads me to only one conclusion: insisting that antitrust enforcers pull their punches or risk impairing our ability to face the threats from China is nothing short of corporate extortion, a protection racket at a global scale. What we need is more competition, and less protectionism. The only way we will defeat the economic threat of communist China is by empowering American businesses to challenge and disrupt the would-be Chinese collaborators that make up Big Tech.
The hypocrisy is glaring: Big Tech wants to assist Communist China in exchange for access to its economy, while pointing to the Chinese threat as an excuse for anticompetitive and monopolistic conduct in the United States. Americans deserve better, and we should refuse to entertain this disingenuous and insulting excuse.