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The battle to control big tech — who will win?

While the Big Five sometimes seems untouchable, that’s not entirely true. Many successful attempts to curb their power have been made. However, not all of them have worked in our favor.

Paulius Ilevičius

Paulius Ilevičius

The battle to control big tech — who will win?

What is Big Tech?

What’s known as Big Tech consists of a few multinational tech companies that have accumulated a significant amount of power within the tech market and beyond. Currently, the list is dominated by The Big Five — Facebook (Meta), Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft.

While these companies own the majority of the online services we use, their consolidation of power is the subject of open debate. Critics often condemn Big Tech companies for their egregious data hoarding, market and opinion manipulation, lack of transparent handling of user data, and biased algorithms.

Governments vs. Big Tech

The government's relationship to Big Tech varies from country to country. While we have the liberal, American, everything-goes approach, which in a way gave way to Big Tech’s dominance, European markets have gradually introduced restrictive legislation to curb its power in favor of transparency.

However, a thin line exists between regulation and limiting the free market. This is especially evident in cases when authoritarian governments imitate the practices of democratic countries’ regulations and adapt them to their own ill purposes.

Attempts to curb Big Tech power for users’ sake

Let's look at a few good-intentioned initiatives to curb the power of Big Tech for a more open and transparent internet.

The General Data Protection Regulation

General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, is a key EU privacy regulation implemented in 2018. Its main purpose is to increase users' control over their data and simplify regulatory requirements for international businesses. It introduces requirements for companies’ handling of customers' personal data and addresses the transfer of personal data outside the EU area.

The GDPR was a significant step forward in curbing the hoarding and misuse of personal data by websites and online services.

HR 3825, The Ending Platform Monopolies Act

This bill, passed last year, prohibits platform holders from competing on the same platform. One of the more famous cases of this issue was Amazon's attempts to buy Diapers.com. When the latter refused to sell out, Amazon started to sell diapers at very low prices because, as the platform owner, it could do so. In the end, Diapers.com allowed itself to be bought by Amazon out of fear of going out of business.

The EU’s investigations of Apple

A couple of years ago, the EU launched two antitrust investigations into Apple's practices. One focused on Apple's use of its market dominance to stifle the competition with its book and music services. The other focused on Apple Pay allowing payments by Apple devices in physical shops and limiting financial institutions’ use of iPhones near field radio frequency technologies.

Executive Order 14036, “Promoting Competition in the American Economy”

One of the most recent initiatives established a policy allowing the various federal agencies to more thoroughly scrutinize mergers of companies. It focuses on large companies acquiring potential disruptive technologies from smaller ones. The law also established rules for data collection and its use when promoting Big Tech services.

The Digital Services Act (DSA)

The DSA requires large companies to produce detailed reports on their content moderation, algorithm application, recommendation, and advertising practices. The law states that users should be immediately notified about moderation decisions and provided with tools to appeal. However, it is still an open question whether the DSA won’t become a tool to take down content without a court order, and introduce new ways to limit the freedom of speech.

The Digital Markets Act

The EU's Digital Markets Act reclassifies certain online services as gatekeepers. It forbids such companies to rank their products against those of competitors' and preinstall their apps on users' devices. It also tries to improve the conditions for data portability, the ability of users to freely move their data from one service to another. The Act aims to introduce more transparency and fairer competition to the market by ensuring interoperability and accountancy to users.

Taiwan's Internet Audiovisual Service Management Act

Taiwan's IASMA aims at controlling streaming platforms and creating more transparency in the market. It requires certain companies to provide data on user statistics and revenue as well as establish more user-friendly complaint mechanisms. The Act was also introduced to decrease the influence of Chinese streaming services within the country and the resulting spread of misinformation.

Fines on social media platforms

Apart from specific laws, cases of governments fining big tech companies have also been seen. In the past few years, France has fined Google 100 million euros and Amazon 35 million euros for breaching the country's data protection act. Italy also fined its local telecom providers for unlawful data processing. However, some argue that fines aren't an effective way of decreasing Big Tech’s power because they are imposed for past actions and don't prevent future issues.

Attempts to curb Big Tech’s power regarding oppression and surveillance

While the above examples illustrate good-will attempts to curb Big Tech, there are also cases when this happens to increase oppression and surveillance and limit the freedom of speech. Authoritarian governments such as China or Belarus usually intercept the activities of tech companies to gather data on their targets and monitor their activities. However, similar practices occasionally take place in democratic societies.

Sometimes countries try to impose their own local rules and laws to be able to end the activities of global platforms that do not comply with their laws. So, curbing Big Tech not only positively leads towards transparency but also creates an increased potential for monitoring and surveillance.

Pros and cons of tech regulation

Freedom House published a few insights on governments’ drive to control Big Tech. Here are the best and worst practices.

Best practices

  • Transparency in content moderation, advertising, and data usage
  • Strong encryption and privacy standards
  • Clear due process with regards to appeal
  • Protections against intermediary liability
  • Obligations tailored to match companies' size

Worst practices

  • Requirements to remove social, political, or religious content
  • Requirements to hand over data without a court order
  • Broad rules for data localization and retention
  • Mandates for automatic content moderation
  • In-country representative and requirements for registration

Paulius Ilevičius
Paulius Ilevičius Paulius Ilevičius
Paulius Ilevičius is a technology and art enthusiast who is always eager to explore the most up-to-date issues in cybersec and internet freedom. He is always in search for new and unexplored angles to share with his readers.