After decades of illegally crushing competition at the expense of consumers and small businesses, the four “Big Tech” giants—Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple—are finally facing their antitrust comeuppance in Washington.
In Congress, a bipartisan coalition has formed in support of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO), which would ban Big Tech companies from unfairly giving their products a boost over competitors.
The prospect of this widely popular bill passing has led Big Tech to engage in one of the most desperate lobbying sprees in recent history. Big Tech’s “see-what-sticks” smear campaign against antitrust has encompassed everything from false claims about content moderation to urging consultants to pushing the message (as Amazon was caught doing) that AICO “will harm communities of color.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that Big Tech has employed the oldest trick in the book of American politics: manufacturing concern over supposed risks to “national security.” Over the past year, Big Tech has shamelessly pushed the premise that AICO and the accompanying Open App Markets Act (OAMA) would put American security at risk.
That’s right: Big Tech wants you to believe a bill to stop Google from leveraging its search engine dominance against competitors is a danger to America’s national defense.
As patently absurd as this premise is—what, exactly, would be the “national security” implication of stopping Amazon from giving preferential treatment to its own products on the marketplace?—it’s far from a shot in the dark.
Indeed, Big Tech has pulled out the big guns to push manufactured concerns about “national security.”
In a way, you can’t really blame Big Tech for wrapping itself in the flag to evade accountability: The tech titans are desperate…
The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a top Big Tech lobbying group, has led the way in bankrolling faulty analysis about antitrust’s national security implications. In conjunction with law firm King & Spalding (whose clientele includes Google), the CCIA released its own paper to “identif[y] national security risks” supposedly posed by antitrust.
Predictably, the “concerns” they identified were abstract ones, such as the possibility of “undermining U.S. tech leadership.” The CCIA also feigned concern that antitrust would weaken “efforts to combat foreign influence and misinformation,” a particularly amusing argument given it counts Facebook as a member.
Big Tech has also worked hard to court the support of retired national security figures to feign credibility. A group of 12 ex-national security figures who echoed the tech lobby’s line were quickly exposed as having professional ties to Big Tech. The CCIA went as far as repackaging an old, out-of-context video of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to depict her as an opponent of the antitrust bills. After Protocol—a site that covers tech business and policy—discovered the video was old “and wasn’t even about antitrust reform,” Rice’s representatives asked the CCIA to take it down.
In a way, you can’t really blame Big Tech for wrapping itself in the flag to evade accountability. The tech titans are desperate, and if there’s one consistent thing in 21st century American politics, it’s that lying about national security can do a hell of a lot for a flailing agenda.
But when everyone from conservatives at the Heritage Foundation to progressives at the American Economic Liberties Project (AELP) have called out Big Tech’s cynical national security plot for what it is, it’s high time for media outlets to stop taking it seriously.
It’s worth noting that many former national security officials have endorsed the antitrust efforts, most notably a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, retired General Wesley Clark.
Tom Ridge and Janet Napolitano—who respectively led the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush and Barack Obama—have also endorsed reining in Big Tech’s monopoly power. In a collaborative letter, they noted that the self-preferencing behavior of companies like Apple “run directly counter to improving the security of apps in their marketplaces”.
Unfortunately, Big Tech is able to get away pushing half-baked talking points about “national security” for one reason and one reason alone: the China factor.
“The Competitiveness Coalition,” a newly formed Big Tech front group led by former Republican Sen. Scott Brown, has been spending big on a crude advertising campaign attacking antitrust reform as pro-China.
Big Tech’s shameless China-baiting comes off as particularly offensive for several reasons. For one, Big Tech giants have long proven their willingness to accommodate Beijing in the hopes of getting a larger market share in China. Apple has happily engaged in censorship of the Chinese App Store to remain in operation in the country, with some 55,000 apps disappearing from 2017 to 2021, according to The New York Times. As for Google, the company was working on a censored search engine project for the Chinese market as recently as 2018.
As noted by The Washington Post in 2020, “Apple is heavily dependent on Chinese manufacturing, and human rights reports have identified instances in which alleged forced Uyghur labor has been used in Apple’s supply chain.” (Similar reports have emerged regarding Amazon.)
Given Big Tech’s willingness to aid the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent, it’s of no surprise that leading Chinese human rights organizations such as the Uyghur Human Rights Project have endorsed the Open App Markets Act.
But most importantly, the argument that China stands to gain from a U.S. crackdown on Big Tech is wrong because it’s based on a faulty underlying premise: the notion that monopoly power is good for innovation and that reining in corporate giants will kill America’s competitive edge.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, the government helps stifle innovation when it lets Big Tech giants gobble up promising small companies to corner the market. Big Tech is notorious for its “copy-acquire-kill” strategy, a model that hinders startups in critical fields like artificial intelligence from flourishing.
As legal scholar Ganesh Sitaraman noted in 2020, for America to retain its innovative edge globally, “more competition is desirable, not less,” which means that “[b]reaking up and regulating big tech will thus improve innovation, not reduce it.”
In a way, “Cold War II” rhetoric against antitrust isn’t dissimilar to the lies pushed by monopolists during the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions. Facing a breakup in the 1980s, AT&T lobbyists tried to get the Reagan administration to save them by pushing the argument that preserving the company’s monopoly on communications systems would keep Americans safe.
Fortunately, the Bell System was ordered to be broken up in January 1982. A quick glance at how history unfolded in the years that followed gives little credence to the idea that breaking up AT&T was a lifeline for America’s top adversaries.
With time running out until the August recess, it’s crucial that Senate leadership puts the antitrust bills to a floor vote.
Big Tech isn’t concerned that antitrust reform will hurt “national security”: They’re concerned it will rein in their monopolistic business model—and they’re absolutely right to be.