The House Judiciary Committee’s approach to regulating Big Tech deserves examination.
Following a year-long committee investigation that uncovered a trove of disturbing findings about how Big Tech’s predatory practices appear to stifle competition, the House Judiciary Committee recently held the first in a series of hearings designed to explore solutions to address this complex problem.
In my time in Congress, I watched the Judiciary Committee enact many meaningful reforms to protect competitive marketplaces, and I know that it possesses the capability of enacting many of the changes that the American people need and deserve. The question is how can they do so without causing more harm than good to innovation and the competitive marketplace?
Some believe that an outright breakup of these companies would weaken efficiency. Others believe the opposite and argue that the monopolistic nature of these companies’ business practices—including but not limited to appearing to take others’ intellectual property to get ahead and striking collusive deals with one another to block competition from arising—warrants strong federal action.
Regardless of where one falls on this spectrum, everyone should agree that one of the principal reform ideas discussed at the Judiciary hearing can work as either a supplementary or stand-alone improvement: working towards ensuring the interoperability of competing systems.
If you’re unfamiliar with that term as it pertains to the Big Tech debate, it’s best to become familiar with it now because it’s likely to be a vital part of all the policy discussions moving forward.
Ranking Member Ken Buck (R-CO) put it best: “interoperability is a time-honored practice in the tech industry that allows competing technologies to speak to one another so that consumers can choose without being locked into any one technology.” In short, this intuitive idea is when two computer systems, websites, or apps—even those from competing companies—can share and use information.
One example is how a Fitbit user can transfer health data to the doctor’s office; the data are easily transmitted, and the doctor can then make good use of it. The network protects the user’s data and facilitates the transfer without favoritism to a particular developer. The easier it is to transfer data, the more useful our personal data and digital infrastructure become, and the greater possibilities for innovation in our economy.
Policy experts agree that opening Big Tech’s infrastructure can level the playing field for the little guy, allowing them a fair shot at competing with even the most prominent firms. That’s because, at the moment, the most prominent firms appear to dictate with whom small developers get to do business.
The example on the utility of interoperability that Congress heard at the hearing came from the CEO of MapBox, a mapping tools software company, who claimed that Google forces developers that desire to use Google Search into exclusive deals with Google Maps as the price of doing business with the tech giant.
That matters because Google Maps has around 70-percent market share on the digital map market (Apple Maps makes up the majority of the remaining market). This trend continues in other areas of cyberspace, like with basic search engine browser usage where Google holds over 65-percent market share.
For small digital innovators, playing ball currently means forming partnerships with one of the four companies being targeted by the committee. Allowing this data to become interoperable would give Google’s competitors and vendors a far better shot at succeeding in the marketplace, because it would create a market where Google and other tech monopolies like it can’t leverage exclusivity power to stop competing innovation from reaching consumers.
There are plenty of other ways that interoperability could quickly benefit the general citizenry’s lives. For example, imagine a digital world in which Facebook and Twitter opt to allow their users to easily transfer their followers list, friends list, and other data to competing services. That would present great news for Parler, Gab, and every other marketplace alternative that comes after them. What is more, by increasing competitive pressures, it could also cause Big Tech to resolve many of the common concerns that users have raised with their systems as well.
The best part of the interoperability approach to curtailing Big Tech’s abuses is that, with a little bit of pressure, the tech giants could implement it without Congress or a regulatory body even formally intervening with a new bill or directive.
After all, Big Tech has always claimed to love interoperability and has even used the digital world’s need for it as a legal defense when its competitors have brought forth accusations of predatory behavior.
Take, for example, the Supreme Court case of Google v. Oracle, where by claiming the need for interoperability Google justified its unapproved use of over 11,000 lines of Oracle-owned code for the Application Program Interfaces (APIs) that help make Android hum.
In a legal brief, Google claimed that the Supreme Court siding with Oracle would allow the company to “monopolize the market.” That’s clearly not the case—not when Apple and Microsoft were both able to create their own APIs without using Oracle’s coding, as Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out in oral arguments. It also goes without saying that intellectual property law matters, and that “interoperability” should never excuse verbatim copies. Nevertheless, the relevant point of Google’s argument remains clear. It conceded that interoperability is important in the tech space.
Coincidentally, Big Tech has already expressed support for new regulations, perhaps because of the sizable pressure for change from the public and rule-makers. Why not test its appetite for self-regulation by making interoperability a more regular part of some of its business procedures?
Congress should ask this question on March 25 when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testify before Congress again. It’s certainly worth what it costs.
Lynn Westmoreland served as a U.S. member of Congress for Georgia’s 3rd District from 2007 to 2017 and the 8th District from 2005 to 2007.
This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the author.