2021 was a bad PR year for Big Tech. Lawmakers, advocates, and scholars filled pages of books and held hours of hearing exalting what they viewed as an industry being strangled by a handful of players using anti-competitive practices to solidify their position as kings. Ironically, those exact same tactics were vehemently opposed by the Big Tech companies themselves less than a decade ago. Like an ageing punk throwing out their raggedy jean jacket for a blazer, Big Tech sold out.
That’s according to a new report by the Tech Oversight Project shared exclusively with Gizmodo. The report — titled Whiplash: Inside Big Tech’s Open Internet Flip-Flop — lays out a laundry list of times where Big Tech companies have seemingly expressed support for many of the same policy goals they’re currently fighting to quash. It also comes as Congress muses over several key pieces of antitrust legislation taking aim at Big Tech’s alleged monopolistic business practices.
The report spotlights Google, Amazon, and Facebook’s fierce defence of net neutrality in 2014 where the companies repeatedly cited an “open internet” as a critical component to innovation and economic growth. Tech’s biggest players, as a New York Times article from the time states, “put their reputations and financial clout behind the challenge.”
These high-minded priorities for an open internet were shouted from the rooftops by Big Tech’s most prominent voices at the time. “The internet has created this remarkable set of free markets, open competition, and competitive growth, and we need to keep it free and open,” Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in a 2007 address to the Progress and Freedom Foundation Aspen Summit. “It’s actually important!” Then, in a 2017 Facebook post that’s almost laughably absurd hearing it now, Meta CEO and aspiring Metverse overlord Mark Zuckerberg espoused the urgent need to “keep the internet free and open.”
So what changed? Well, according to the Tech Oversight Project’s Executive Director, Sacha Haworth, Big Tech somewhere along the way saw an avenue to entrench their status and in doing so chose money and consolidation over their past principles.
“These Big Tech platforms endorsed an open internet when it suited them and now that they are monopolies they want to effectively close the door and lock it behind them to prevent anyone else from becoming as successful as they have been,” Haworth said. Haworth went on to draw a through-line between Big Tech’s skyrocketing market valuations and their pivot toward gatekeeping business practices. At the time of writing, Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet had achieved valuations of $US3 ($4) trillion, $US2.2 ($3) trillion, and $US1.8 ($2) trillion respectively.
The recently launched Tech Oversight Project sees brewing antitrust legislation as a key component to reigning back Big Tech’s influence. The group, which The Washington Post notes receives funding from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s left of centre Omidyar Network, told Gizmodo it’s focused on a campaign-style approach to holding tech behemoths accountable. That push comes on the heels of increased spending and lobbying efforts from tech giants.
The Tech Oversight Project sees a strong public appetite for antitrust efforts. The organisation pointed Gizmodo towards a new Data for Progress poll where 71% of Democrats and 44% of Republican likely voters said they supported the American Innovation and Choice Online (AICO) Act, one of the new antitrust measures. Other polling released this week from Morning Consult found that 38% of adults thought the federal government should regulate tech more, compared to 29% in 2019. And unlike most other issues, antitrust has broad bipartisan support, both among the public and with lawmakers, which has made it all the more appealing for groups looking for ways to direct Big Tech’s influence.
“Companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple prove themselves hypocritical monopolists time and time again,” Tech Oversight Project spokesperson Kyle Morse said. “We deserve a level playing field and clear rules of the road that encourage competition, spark the next big idea, and provide consumers with a choice in how they use the internet.”
Big Tech’s supposed policy flip-flopping goes beyond milk toast statements or blog posts. Last month, in the days leading up to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s mark-up of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, Apple and Google, in particular, spoke out publicly against the bill with Google saying the antitrust efforts would somehow “break” many of its most used services. The giants were so concerned that CEOs Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook reportedly personally contacted multiple lawmakers urging them to oppose the legislation. Similar frantic calls to lawmakers were dished out last year after a bipartisan group of House members introduced five antitrust bills taking direct aim at the companies.
Those specific cases are part of a much broader lobbying effort involving staggering amounts of cash. Big Tech lobbying shot up last year once antitrust efforts began gaining more steam, particularly among the companies most likely to find themselves on the receiving end of pro-competition policies. Last year, Meta reportedly spent an all-time high record of $US20.1 ($28) million on lobbyists while Alphabet spent around $US9.6 ($13) million. Alphabet’s spending marked a 27.5% increase from the previous year. Meta and Amazon meanwhile both increased their lobbying expenditures by 7% compared to 2020 figures. Apple, for what it’s worth, spent slightly less in 2021 despite a relatively high level of scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators.
All that money waving has contributed to the fracturing of the tech industry writ large which collectively once shared a broader set of policy interests. That change was made clear late last year following the death of The Internet Association which once stood largely unchallenged as the tech industry’s top lobbying arm. Part of IA’s downfall came because its biggest previous members, like Meta and Alphabet, were reportedly at odds with smaller, and even not-so-small firms who wanted the lobbying firm to advocate for more open internet policies.
2021 was the year academics and lawmakers proved there’s an appetite for antitrust. Now, in 2022, those same forces will have to prove if that appetite is enough to ward off what’s shaping to be a year of combative pushback from some of the country’s most powerful companies.
“The tectonic plate has shifted away from smaller companies that have fought against some of these anti-competitive practices monopolizers engage in,” Haworth said. “There’s a reorientation of alliances here with the monopolies fighting to maintain their monopolies, versus pretty much everyone else.”
You can read the full report embedded below.