Reining in Big Tech: Is This the End of the Beginning?

Does the introduction of the United States’ new antitrust measures against big tech mark a tipping point in governments’ willingness to insert themselves into platform governance?

July 23, 2021

Last month, on June 24, the US House Committee on the Judiciary passed a package of new measures broadly aimed at curtailing the power of big tech. In Canada, Bill C-10 passed the House of Commons, despite criticism and controversy (although it languishes in the Senate and may be nullified by a federal election).

We appear to have reached a tipping point in terms of governments’ willingness to insert themselves into platform governance.

What are the perils of this political moment? What are the opportunities?

CIGI asked several experts for their opinions.

Robert Fay, Centre for International Governance Innovation

This increased focus on the perils of the power of big tech is welcome, but I think we are far off from a so-called tipping point. Although the US Judiciary Committee has passed a series of measures aimed at taming big tech, at the same time the Federal Court has just dismissed an antitrust lawsuit brought against Facebook by the government and raises the question of how these new measures will stand up in court. Further, the US focus takes an antitrust approach to reining in the power, but that is what I would call a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to improve governance. In Canada, so far the approach has been to update the Broadcasting Act and privacy legislation, but Bill C-10 is mired in controversy, Bill C-11 seems to have disappeared on the horizon, and competition policy is missing in action. The European Union’s approach is the broadest, focusing on data governance, privacy and competition, but as is typically the case in the EU, the approach is highly legalistic and likely costly for individuals and firms. Nevertheless, we can learn from each of these approaches, and indeed we must. Digital is global, and a global approach is required to avoid a race to the bottom. This is not only in all of our interests, it is also in the interests of big tech, but at the moment the fragmented approach — even if well-meaning — is only helping to solidify their power. So, how can we create the comprehensive governance that deals not only with the business model of the platforms, but also with the outcomes of the business models? We need to focus on global frameworks: principles, standards, regulations, designed cooperatively, that bring in ideas from domestic efforts while taking a globally comprehensive and integrated approach. We are at the beginning of these efforts, but hopefully, as Churchill said, perhaps at the end of the beginning.

Blayne Haggart, Brock University

The United States’ laissez-faire attitude toward economic regulation and hate speech fuelled the rise of its world-dominating monopolistic tech firms and “anti-social” social media companies. That even they are now working to rein them in (at least a bit) is a welcome development. As we’ve learned to our detriment over the past several years, and as Dutch internet scholar Niels ten Oever notes in a recent volume on the state’s role in internet governance (co-edited by myself, Natasha Tusikov and Jan Aart Scholte), too little regulation in the name of a “free and open internet” is a recipe for harmful economic concentration, pernicious business models and an uncivil society.

Only democratic states have the legitimacy to adjudicate among the choices involved in platform governance. Getting these rules right is, of course, an enormous challenge, but this responsibility cannot be avoided. The question is not should the state regulate, but how should the state regulate?

We shouldn’t fear that (democratic) governments adopting different regulatory regimes for tech companies is a precursor to a world-shattering “splinternet” (an overblown concern, in any case). Rather, we should embrace this opportunity to reconsider the “global” in “global internet governance” in a way that embraces democracy, and respects and accommodates local differences, not only in areas like speech and culture, but also regarding whether platforms should be treated like public utilities.

We need to start thinking about platform governance in terms of international interoperability, not our current “one platform to rule them all” globalization. This would involve truly domestically accountable platforms embedded in and reflecting the societies in which they operate. After all, one person’s “free and open internet” is another’s social media horror show and economy-stifling monopolist.

Natasha Tusikov, York University

The US government’s new antitrust laws to rein in big tech firms represent a sea change from its formerly light-touch regulatory approach and could helpfully kick-start similar discussions in Canada. Useful too is the broadening of the debate from a focus on social media companies and free speech to other actors in the digital economy, particularly marketplaces. Antitrust laws would address two-sided markets’ monopolies, requiring, for example, Amazon to separate its business as marketplace operator from its merchant role.

What this focus misses, however, is an equivalent regulatory attention to the companies’ surveillance-intensive, data-extractive business models. Antitrust regulation could force apart Facebook and Instagram, but each company would retain significant data power from its network effects and its interpretation and monetization of users’ data. Data monopolies not only present a barrier to entry for new businesses, but also exacerbate inequalities such as those inherent to the gig economy.

Most dominant tech platforms are based in the United States, aside from a handful in China, and are largely responsive to US law makers and regulators. Smaller states like Canada lack the regulatory power or draw of a large internal market to enact necessary change. What’s needed are international agreements undertaken by coalitions of like-minded states or we’ll remain beholden to US rules that privilege US values, interests and actors. Also vital is training for all levels of policy makers and elected officials in regulating the digital economy, a project bolstered by the cutting-edge research curated by Canada’s Digital Rights Archive.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Robert (Bob) Fay is the managing director of digital economy at CIGI. The research under his direction assesses and provides policy recommendations for the complex global governance issues arising from digital technologies.

Blayne Haggart is a CIGI senior fellow and associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada.

Natasha Tusikov is an assistant professor of criminology in the Department of Social Science at York University and a visiting fellow with the school of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University.