Much has been said about how Europe is shaping up to be ground zero for seismic changes in Big Tech, as regulators are, have been and will continue to impose mandates on what can and cannot be used in terms of consumer data. However, in the U.S., a groundswell exists for changing the way firms such as Google and Facebook do business — and the impact will carry right into next year’s elections.
This past week, in a survey conducted by Morning Consult and Politico via a national tracking poll, questions posed to more than 1,990 registered voters found that 52 percent said regulation of larger tech firms should be either a “top priority” or an “important, but lower priority” on the Hill. That’s up eight percentage points from a year ago, according to the data.
Separately, in terms of individual company events, Facebook is now the subject of a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors over pacts that were struck with other tech giants. There are 150 companies that had such data sharing deals in place, spanning marquee names such as Apple and Amazon, according to reports.
The news comes as The New York Times, citing two unnamed sources familiar with a request made by a grand jury in New York, noted that the investigation is being handled by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of that state. As reported, the data sharing agreements are now part of the ongoing investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) into whether Facebook violated the terms of a 2011 consent agreement.
Elsewhere, Facebook employees, as reported by Krebs on Security, had access to passwords used by hundreds of millions of users. The passwords had been stored on the social media giant’s servers in plain text — thus, accessible to employees. However, it should be noted that there is no current evidence that the passwords were improperly accessed.
Google’s most recent fine — equivalent to $1.7 billion USD — came in the wake of what European regulators said was abuse of the firm’s dominant position within search, where Google had limited how websites used display ads that were sold by competitors. The fine is the third penalty against the firm via European watchdogs since 2017, though, as noted in this space, is less than the cumulative $7.7 billion USD equivalent that came in those instances. The latest fine comes with the last of the charges filed by the EU against the company, and ends several years of investigation.
“Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts, and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anticompetitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites,” said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust chief, at the time of last week’s announcement. “This is illegal under EU antitrust rules,” she added.
Though Google had stopped the aforementioned practice in 2016, the decision required Google to lift restrictions of any equivalence, and to not reinstate them.
“We’ve already made a wide range of changes to our products to address the Commission’s concerns. Over the next few months, we’ll be making further updates to give more visibility to rivals in Europe,” said Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs.
A bit closer to home, in Mississippi, State Attorney General Jim Hood said his office is formulating an antitrust case against Google. Per reports, Hood said tech firms should embrace practices similar to the ones mandated by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Bloomberg reported that Vestager said early stage investigations into Amazon’s potential use of data to compete (in an allegedly anticompetitive way) against smaller companies is “quite advanced.” According to the newswire, she added that she would “like to take more decisive steps” before leaving office later in the year.
Taxes And Other Matters
As the Democratic field of potential candidates gets crowded, some would-be 2020 nominees have been weighing in on Big Tech and taxes. In one instance, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) proposed a “data tax” on tech firms, though reports earlier this month stated that this was being floated as an option and not as detailed proposal.
Beyond the U.S., in Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter will “escape” $200 million in taxes in the federal budget debuting in April. The paper reported that the government has “retreated” from its digital tax, as submissions and consultations with stakeholders closed late last year.
In New Zealand, in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, large investors — such as the New Zealand Super Fund and the Government Superannuation Fund Authority — have pushed for action from Facebook, Google and Twitter on monitoring content and taking responsibility for what is published on their respective platforms.