“Unwarranted, concentrated economic power in the hands of a few is dangerous to democracy—especially when digital platforms control content. The era of self-regulation is over.” –House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Americans want to be protected from the unchecked power of tech giants. We know that historically, unchecked large-scale power in the hands of very few companies has worked against the interest of society as a whole. Congress finally heeded our calls this week, by announcing that the House Judiciary Committee will open a bipartisan antitrust investigation into digital markets that focuses on competitive practices and policies, existing antitrust laws, and current enforcement levels.
This is welcome news, and an important step in a longer journey to end the era of tech platforms’ self-governance. Through this investigation, Congress should consider not only the benefits, but also the harms caused to our society by tech platforms. As a start, it can evaluate a wide range of proposals, including: whether to break some of them up–an approach Sen. Warren and even Facebook founder Chris Hughes have advocated for; to tax digital advertising, as proposed by Nobel-winning economist Paul Romer; or to free up data and mandate interoperability to give competitors a fighting chance.
But we believe that antitrust alone can’t address the full scope of problems with dominant tech platforms, fromdegraded online discourse and weaponized information to widespread surveillance and screen addiction issues. When left unchecked and unregulated, these platforms have shown that their dominance and their practices can threaten democracy, individual freedoms, innovation, and competition.
Reining in this power requires broader Congressional action. It also requires a diversified toolbox of solutions to set guardrails for big tech platforms. Some of these include:
Tech companies have surveilled and manipulated data without adequate consent, and targeted users to influence behavior. To help prevent abusive and harmful practices like these, this policy should focus on minimizing collection and storage of consumer data and establish clear limits on data use. Why? There’s no guarantee that antitrust solutions and increased competition on their own would translate into greater privacy protection. Companies might instead race to the bottom in collecting more data to feed new revenue sources. Fortunately, there are blueprints we can build off of and even improve: Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s Consumer Privacy Act. Enhancing and standardizing California’s protections at the federal level would help avoid patchwork solutions at the state level.
In many cases, tech giants cannot monitor themselves effectively, nor have they created transparent and healthy online environments. To address this, we need to mandate that platforms work proactively to limit harm to users and the democratic process. Congress should also focus on obligations of proportionality and scale to ensure dominant platforms have stringent content monitoring and takedown obligations, and appropriate due process safeguards for users. Congress should also consider specific measures to protect the political process, like the Honest Ads Act, which would limit micro-targeting of political ads and require companies to keep detailed records of ads they serve and to whom.
New challenges will inevitably arise, and the changes we make today will have consequences we cannot fully predict. That’s why Congress should consider creating an independent agency—let’s call it the Digital Platform Agency—that oversees dominant platforms and helps set standards for creation of new ones. Similar proposals have emphasized creating space for innovation, for healthy competition, and for new entrepreneurs to have a fighting chance. Beyond this, the agency might examine new ways to interpret anti-competitive behavior and consumer welfare, and consider structural separation between different units of the same organization.
Private citizens, businesses, advocacy groups, and organizations like Omidyar Network play important roles in shaping and demanding change in our tech platforms. America also needs—and wants—its government to step in and address this power imbalance. While we know that the sheer scale and variety of this challenge cannot be solved simply with government oversight and policy alone, Congress has the power to help create a more respectful, fair, competitive, and innovative platform economy.
Now it’s time for them to wield that power.
Anamitra Deb is senior director of Omidyar Network’s innovation business unit. Gus Rossi is a principal at Omidyar Network.
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