The motives of tech tycoons have been laid bare - now we must act

The motives of tech tycoons have been laid bare - now we must act

Article written for the Telegraph, published 30 July 2020

The lobby of the Marriott hotel at Westminster Bridge may seem like an unlikely setting for a significant act in the struggle by policy makers to expose the inner workings of the world's leading tech companies.

It was here however, in 2018, that the House of Commons Serjeant at Arms served the writ of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (DCMS), of which I was then the Chairman, to Ted Kramer, a Californian app developer, asking him to hand over documents which exposed the anti-competitive natureof Facebook's business.

From these we learnt that Mark Zuckerberg personally approved the decision to deny the popular video sharing app Vine from having access to Facebook data that was made available to other developers.

We also saw that Facebook did deals which gave companies that spent heavily on advertising with them privileged access to user data, hid changes in permissions to access even more user data in updates to the Facebook login, and used smart phone user data to determine apps that were a threat to their business that they should either acquire or destroy.

Some of this was referenced in the Congressional hearing in Washington DC yesterday of the House Judiciary Committee Anti-Trust Subcommittee, expertly chaired by David Cicilline, but we also learnt a good deal more about American tech's big four; Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

Tougher interrogation

It was in some ways an historic moment to see the leaders of these companies, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, questioned together by a Congressional committee, albeit using video conferencing technology; Cisco Webex in case you are wondering.

In June I spoke alongside David Cicilline at an online event organised by George Washington University. He has also participated in the International Grand Committee of parliamentarians, that I founded in 2018 with the Canadian MP, Bob Zimmer, and David was due to Chair a further public session of the committee in Washington in May.

Before looking at the substance of the hearing yesterday, it is good to note how far things have come from the 'Senator, we run ads' level of questioning of Mark Zuckerberg at his first Congressional hearing two years ago. David Cicilline and his committee asked sharp questions based on evidence gathered by their inquiry and strong insights on the business practices of these companies.

The key issues

The key issue under examination at yesterday's hearing, whether the questions were about tackling harmful content or anti-competitive data gathering and pricing, was the business model of the companies themselves. If their behaviour seems monopolistic, or they appear too slow to remove COVID-19 disinformation, for example, it's because of the way they have designed their service to maximise revenue.

It doesn't have to be like this, it just is because so far, they have been able to get away with it. So, we learnt that the Amazon 'buy box' favours products to be shipped using Amazon Prime, and that the Alexa smart speaker also promotes Amazon products.

Amazon also has access to third party data about businesses who sell through its platform, which it can use to launch competing products.

The Committee exposed that Apple removed a number of screen time and parental control apps from its App Store shortly after the company released its own screen time product, and that Google search acted against websites that were getting 'too much traffic' and so diverting revenue from their own services. Internal Facebook memos were also published yesterday regarding the company's decision to acquire Instagram because 'they could be disruptive to us', and they wanted to 'neutralise the threat'.

Mark Zuckerberg was also questioned about the 'Stop Hate for Profit' campaign which has seen some of the world's leading advertisers boycotting the platform. It's not just that harmful disinformation about the coronavirus exists on Facebook, but that it can become one of the top trending items, meaning that the platform is making advertising revenue from people sharing that content.

Turning a blind eye

Much of the hearing chimed as well with the recent report of the UK's Competition and Market Authority into online advertising.

Noting that Google controls 90pc of the UK's search advertising market and Facebook 50pc of the display advertising market, the CMA recommended a new regulatory model to address the fact that these companies 'are now protected by such strong incumbency advantages - including network effects, economies of scale and unmatchable access to user data - that potential rivals can no longer compete on equal terms.'

When politicians talk about being 'unashamedly pro-tech' we have to hope they are guilty of over-simplicity, rather than turning a blind eye to the real issues that affect this industry today.

Data and technology are more valuable to our economy than oil, but it shouldn't mean that the businesses in this market can do anything they like, any more than an energy company can.

I would say that I am 'pro-car' but I still want manufacturers to work to lower emissions and I think that seat belts are a good idea.

It is clear that addressing both anti-competitive practices by the major tech companies and tackling harmful content on social media will require proper oversight from independent regulators with proper legal authority. These committee hearings are continuing to expose that fact, and its time now for governments to act.

Copyright 2019 Damian Collins. All rights reserved

Promoted by Russell Tillson for and on behalf of Damian Collins, both of Folkestone & Hythe Conservative Association both at 4 West Cliff Gardens, Folkestone, Kent CT20 1SP

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