There's nothing gigantic consumer internet companies fear more than governments taking strong regulatory actions that could constrain their ability to innovate or hobble their existing business models. Lately, it seems like the harder they strive to prevent that from happening, the more inevitable it becomes. 

Every week brings fresh evidence to strengthen the argument that Google, Facebook and Amazon have become too powerful, and too reckless with that power, for the good of consumers, or society as a whole. Just a few weeks after it emerged that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had personally charged his No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg, with repairing the company's reputation by getting ahead of security issues, Facebook admitted suffering the largest breach in its history, involving the stolen personal data of 50 million users. 

That came a week after WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton revealed that Facebook executives had coached him to give misleading answers to regulators from the European Competition Commission in order to secure approval for Facebook's $22 billion acquisition of his startup. Facebook was eventually fined $122 million for the ruse, which amounted to a false reassurance WhatsApp users' data wouldn't be hoovered up in the parent company's vacuum. 

In their efforts to avoid scrutiny, the giant platform players only manage to demand more of it. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google declined to notify 500,000 users whose personal data was exposed by a software glitch because of concern such a disclosure would invite "immediate regulatory interest." ("Don't be evil?" More like don't get caught.) In Europe, meanwhile, Google was revealed to be featuring listings on its shopping website that appear to be from competing price-comparison sites but are really just ads. The scheme was cooked up to make it look like Google was enthusiastically complying with the terms of a $2.8 billion settlement with the EU over anti-competitive behavior. 

Then there's Amazon, which briefly won praise for its decision -- in the face of pressure from Bernie Sanders and others in Congress -- to raise the minimum wage for its workers. The praise turned to backlash as it became clear many workers will end up earning less total compensation as a result.  (Amazon subsequently said it would offset any such losses.) 

While they'd like for the bad headlines to stop, the tech goliaths know that's not going to happen as long as they continue to grow and sink their tentacles ever deeper into every aspect of consumers' lives. (Facebook didn't let its dismal record on privacy deter it from introducing a camera-and-microphone-equipped hardware device, called Portal, to be used for video chatting and such. So jarring was the timing, TechCrunch, not known for its skepticism toward tech companies, ran its story under the headline "Facebook, Are You Kidding?")

An internal research document prepared for Google leaders, and published this week by Breitbart, notes that the calls for Google to be regulated are only getting stronger. But if regulation to curb the platforms' clout is increasingly likely, it's also likely that clout will give them a disproportionate say in what that regulation looks like. It's no coincidence the biggest tech companies have stepped up the magnitude and visibility of their lobbying efforts. Fearing action at the state level, Facebook has dramatically increased the amount of money it spends lobbying state legislators since the 2016 election, according to Sludge, which covers money in politics. 

So vital are these lobbying efforts to their future prospects, the companies are willing to pursue them even at the risk of backlash from their own employees. Facebook's head of global public policy, Joel Kaplan, touched off an internal rebellion by attending Judge Brett Kavanaugh's final Senate hearing in support of the conservative jurist, who was there to defend himself against an allegation of sexual assault. So loud was the outcry from Facebook's predominantly progressive workforce, Kaplan was forced to apologize -- but that didn't stop him from hosting a party to congratulate Kavanaugh on his confirmation. 

Kaplan said he took these actions as a personal friend of Kavanaugh's, not in his capacity as Facebook's chief ambassador to Washington. Google offered no such excuses for its role in getting Kavanaugh confirmed: For years, it has been an elite-level sponsor of the Federalist Society, the conservative advocacy group that assembled the shortlist of Supreme Court candidates from which President Donald Trump chose Kavanaugh (and Justice Neil Gorsuch). 

If and when federal authorities seek to challenge the monopoly power of Big Tech, they'll likely have to do so using a novel interpretation of antitrust law tailored for the age of widespread free services. There's a good chance such an approach would involve litigation that goes all the way to the Supreme Court.

Won't it be nice to have a friend there? 

Published on: Oct 16, 2018