An expert's point of view on a current event.

Make Surveillance Capitalists Pay Their Dues

Congressional action has typically left big tech firms intact, instead mandating that they improve access for all consumers. Washington should stick to that model.

By , the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Donald Harrison, Google’s president for global partnerships and corporate development, testifies via live video feed before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee during a hearing on anti-competitive online advertising in Washington on Sept. 15.
Donald Harrison, Google’s president for global partnerships and corporate development, testifies via live video feed before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee during a hearing on anti-competitive online advertising in Washington on Sept. 15. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It seemed like the beginnings of a redemption story of epic proportions.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Tech surveillance capitalists, such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, which had been in the public crosshairs only weeks earlier suddenly became essential to survival. With worldwide lockdowns, everything that could be moved online went digital, handing us the purest test yet of Big Tech’s usefulness for our very day-to-day survival—from work to school to telemedicine, entertainment, and sadly even goodbyes. Despite complaints of Zoom fatigue, jittery connections, the many challenges of online learning, and more, the internet mostly held up. Throughout the spring, it seemed as if Big Tech was perhaps on its way to earning back some public affection and becoming the good guys again.

But the goodwill was short-lived; in July, four of the biggest Big Tech CEOs were hauled up and grilled remotely from Capitol Hill. In August polling, 45 percent of American adults said they wanted presidential candidates to be more critical of the industry, a 5 percent jump from the previous year. The House antitrust panel chair, Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, is finally poised to rein in the industry. This month, the Justice Department will brief U.S. states on its plan to launch a landmark antitrust suit against Google, and the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights will hold a hearing on enforcement of antitrust laws.

Some analysts advocate for action to break up the big four. Others believe that the industry should be regulated as a public utility. Although interesting in theory, neither action is practical, and neither solves the most fundamental challenge, made amply clear by the pandemic: the broken state of internet access and its disastrous implications for digital inclusion and justice.

Even those who advocate breaking up big tech firms would separate tech platforms from services that also use the platform. That is, they would seek to prevent a dominant platform, like Google, from giving unfair advantage for its own service, like the navigation app Waze. Many experts question the wisdom of a breakup at all. “To what extent are consumers, rather than competitors, being harmed by Google?” asked Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. “Will the search engine work as well without Waze, Gmail, YouTube, and so on?” questioned Jean Tirole, a Nobel laureate and industrial organization scholar. Still others doubt that a breakup would succeed in the courts, given the hostility on the federal bench to antitrust action.

As for regulating Big Tech as a utility, doing so would require an act of Congress to redefine a diverse body of platforms as “common carriers” and the creation of an entirely new regulatory agency. It is unlikely that lawmakers will come together on such drastic steps, especially in an election year and with a polarized Congress.

Although the history of antitrust action on tech is not encouraging for those advocating breakups, it does point to some ideas for a solution. The 1956 federal consent decree against the Bell System kept the telephone monopoly intact after a seven-year legal saga. In exchange, the company was required to license all its patents royalty-free to other businesses, unlocking the transistor, the solar cell, and the laser to the world through Bell Labs. The antitrust action against IBM lasted 13 years, and the company wasn’t broken up either. Instead, IBM agreed to separate pricing for its hardware and software products, giving rise to a software start-up that eventually became Microsoft. When it was Microsoft’s turn to face antitrust action, which lasted from 1998 to 2001, again, there was no breakup. As part of a settlement, Microsoft agreed to ensure its products were compatible with competitors’ software. This opened the door to a plethora of competing web browsers and numerous apps and innovations.

There are lessons here for today. No question, the world is now facing many technology crises: limited choices of search engines, social media platforms, and e-commerce sites; digital misinformation, concern about which is heightened this year; and accumulation of data by Big Tech, which raises concerns about privacy, breaches, and abuse of power. But the pandemic has put a spotlight on an even more fundamental crisis that begs an urgent response: the extreme unevenness of internet access at a time when such access gaps are truly devastating. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 21.3 million Americans lacked broadband internet in 2019, a number the FCC chairman attempted to fudge. A Microsoft analysis puts the figure at a staggering 162 million in 2019. What is clear is that the United States is poorly connected, and broadband access is among the most expensive in the world.

Moreover, the gaps are unevenly spread. Data from Tufts University’s Fletcher School, where I am the dean of global business, shows that states where schools with the greatest need to be run remotely because they have not met public health guidelines overlap with those that fail “digital readiness” tests. The problems extend into other key areas, from telemedicine to the state of employment or government services online, where the United States performs poorly overall. Even worse, the access gap is wider in poorer neighborhoods, with Black and Hispanic households less able to connect than white households. Families have to drive to public libraries or even Taco Bell restaurants to find free Wi-Fi hot spots to educate children. This ought to be unacceptable in the world’s largest economy.

Since history tells us that antitrust action takes a long time and doesn’t usually lead to a company breakup, it is worth fast-forwarding to the endgame and settling with Big Tech now. Lawmakers have the leverage now, and the industry has the resources to spare to meet their demands. Whatever else Congress does, the foundation of a settlement ought to be a requirement to help close the access gaps. They ought to be required to do so in ways that provide affordable, inclusive, and reliable internet access to all while ensuring that none becomes an access gatekeeper.

Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are not just good at e-commerce, beautiful devices, social media, and search. Each has cutting-edge competencies in providing internet access. They know how to solve this problem.

Facebook’s launched in 2013 to provide free access to a limited version of the internet to those without access. The service, created in partnership with local telecommunications operators, spread to more than 60 countries, despite criticism. Currently, it offers an entire portfolio of access initiatives under Facebook Connectivity, including high-altitude platform stations and satellite technology, “internet exchange points” to make access cheaper, efforts to lower the cost of deploying fiber, and open-source software platforms to allow operators to establish mobile networks in remote areas. Google has a project for fiber internet deployment. Its parent company, Alphabet, also has an initiative, Loon, that uses balloons, unmanned aircraft, high-altitude stations, and terrestrial networks to deliver internet access worldwide. Google is winding down its Google Station program to provide free Wi-Fi in railway stations in several developing countries, but that could be revived. Amazon has plans for deploying more than 3,000 low Earth orbit satellites, with the goal of offering broadband service everywhere—for a price. Apple has a similar project in the works.

Much ink has been spilled on surveillance capitalists and how to rein them in. But the pandemic has revealed that the most fundamental of our digital vulnerabilities is one that Big Tech can help solve. It is time to turn to that deal from ancient tech history, when in the 1930s Bell System was permitted to maintain a monopoly in exchange for ensuring universal service, to solve for a problem that ought not exist in 2020. Every household in the United States should have the opportunity to complain about Zoom fatigue and to thank the surveillance capitalists for making that problem universal.

Bhaskar Chakravorti is the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is the founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context, where he established and chairs the Digital Planet research program.