Big Tech no longer sees its customers as humans–antitrust could change that

Originally shared on FastCompany.

Big Tech CEOs—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—testified yesterday before the U.S. House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. I don’t expect much to result from this hearing. Such gatherings are largely theatrical, and yesterday’s was frequently derailed by partisan questions around liberal biases. And then there’s the fact that U.S. antitrust efforts are only a shadow of their former self, narrowly focused on consumer pricing rather than general competitive and societal impact and a far cry from the time of the Standard Oil Company, U.S. Steel Corporation, and AT&T breakups.

While antitrust can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to all tech-related problems, breaking up companies that have become more powerful than democratically elected governments is a discussion we should take very seriously right now. Most defenders of Big Tech raise the specter of China’s dominance in their arguments that American tech companies should avoid antitrust scrutiny, but the short-sightedness of this perspective is glaring: I’ll gloss over the “curious” fact that Big Tech is simultaneously asking to be protected from the U.S. government’s overreach and happily collaborating with the Chinese government on multiple topics (from “Windows 10 China Government Edition” to Apple removing apps from their app store). More important is the fact that what has made the U.S. incredibly fertile soil for Big Tech has been its innovative competitive environment, not a national champion-style industrial policy. Antitrust applied to AT&T, then IBM, and then Microsoft has made American tech stronger, not weaker.

Interestingly, though, as I’ve been thinking about how to (re)create a more human-focused tech ecosystem, I’ve realized that antitrust is an underappreciated tool in this quest for more empathy in tech. This hearing, no matter how fruitful it turns out to be, may help further nourish a much-needed conversation about Big Tech’s transformative influence on humanity—and the importance of putting the needs of humans at the center of what we build.

By forcing us to look beyond the pure consumer impact, the antitrust debates reignite questions around what really matters to us as a society. Antitrust has evolved in the U.S. to the point of being solely focused on consumers’ welfare: The underlying idea is that as long as prices are low, consumers are happy and the legislator shouldn’t intervene. This consumerist model, which is at the core of American society, more or less reduces people to what they consume. As long as what Big Tech companies offer is cheap or (even better) free, we should be supportive of their growth strategy.

But it’s increasingly hard to ignore the negative impact of all these free products and services on humanity: the erosion of privacy and trust, work being made more precarious, dehumanizing extremisms, and more. As David Cicilline, the Democratic chair of the committee, said during the hearing: “Many of the practices used by these companies have harmful economic effects. They discourage entrepreneurship, destroy jobs, hike costs, and degrade quality. Simply put: they have too much power.” No matter what Big Tech wants us to believe, “free”/”cheap” and “human-centered” were never synonyms. As Big Tech becomes even bigger (Apple is now worth $1.6T; Amazon and Microsoft $1.5T; Facebook $670B) and their stock performance sends the message that these companies are making the right business decisions (at least in the short term and in the eyes of public investors), the hidden costs of “free” for people and society become more visible.

History has shown over and over again that big corporations lose sight of the well-being of their customers (not to mention of humanity) and put their weight behind their self-preservation. The industries that regularly top the ranking of the worst customer services (air travel, healthcare, telecom) are also the ones where competition is most lacking. For Big Tech, where customers are counted in hundreds of millions, if not billions, and the interaction is often purely digital, it can be even harder to fully grasp the multifaceted humanity of customers. A customer is mainly a data point and a data source. They matter even less when they have no alternative to move their business to. The Big Tech companies are now at a stage of size and power where they can pretty much buy any competitor and ignore customers’ concerns about privacy (Facebook) or impact on the environment (Amazon).

Big Tech has been telling us for well over a decade: “Trust us; we’re working on making the world a better place.” There is definitely a long list of progress, but the damages to society have also been numerous. The bigger these companies have become, the more they have been advocating for self-regulation and limiting the power of governments. (Though not of corporations: Small is beautiful, it seems, only when it comes to public institutions.) And the more they have spent to protect the status quo and their economic and political power. Amazon and Facebook each put $17M in 2019 alone into lobbying efforts in D.C. Big Tech is now largely unaccountable for its impact on society, as the authorities that are supposed to control these companies in the first place are, in many aspects, weaker and less well-funded than they are.

To be clear: This antitrust discussion should be focused on whether or not competition is still possible given the size and action of Big Tech, not on whether or not these companies are empathetic enough. But I’m hoping that it will also force us to reflect on whether these new giants are actually servicing the needs of humanity—and whether a little more competition may force them, finally, to consider the long-term impact of their unchecked growth strategy on both humans and society.

Maelle Gavet has worked in technology for 15 years. She served as CEO of Ozon, an executive vice president at Priceline Group, and chief operating officer of Compass. She is the author of a forthcoming book, Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem and How to Fix It.