Last Wednesday afternoon, the CEOs of America’s largest tech companies faced a round of questioning from lawmakers in Washington, DC. While the hearings form part of an ongoing antitrust investigation, they risk overlooking how international actors, like unscrupulous Chinese entities, take advantage of American corporations and threaten consumers’ interests. In addition to questions about the abuse of market power, Big Tech needs to clarify how the industry is protecting consumers from international assaults on privacy.
The hearing was convened by the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee to question whether each of the companies may have exploited their seemingly dominant position in their respective industries. Although tech leaders have previously faced the scrutiny of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Wednesday’s hearing was the first time that the CEOs of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook appeared via video link at the same time.
Protecting market competition safeguards important benefits for consumers, but a narrow focus on antitrust itself risks ignoring important reasons why market dominance can be so detrimental. If tech firms both enjoy a dominant market position and adopt a blasé attitude towards international threats to privacy, consumers are effectively forced into a ‘risk-it-or-leave-it’ scenario. Particularly when Chinese corporations may be compelled to hand over private data to authorities in Beijing, it is incumbent upon Big Tech to demonstrate that it takes these concerns seriously.
Recent history should give lawmakers plenty of reason to be concerned. Apple, for example, aggressively curates which apps are available through its app store, giving consumers a sense of security. But it wasn’t until Apple recently released its trial version of iOS 14 that users discovered the popular Chinese-owned app TikTok was copying their clipboard every few seconds.
TikTok has vowed to stop the practice, and Apple’s iOS update was central to the discovery, but the question remains why Apple didn’t spot this earlier in its otherwise rigorous system. Unsurprisingly, both the Republican and Democratic National Committees have advised their staff to refrain from using the app, while Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has ordered its staff to delete the app from both personal and work phones.
Much like Apple’s eventual efforts to address TikTok’s questionable features, the American tech community is slowly coming to recognize their important role in protecting consumers from privacy violations at home and abroad. Earlier this month, Google, Facebook, and Twitter announced that they would not process data requests from law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong, following the introduction of controversial new security measures in the territory. Particularly at a time when lawmakers in Washington have suggested that Chinese social media companies could be regulated or banned, American tech companies should build upon their own momentum and outline how they are proactively addressing these privacy concerns.
America’s tech giants should not assume the role of law enforcement or the national security community. But given the proliferation of threats to consumer privacy online, Big Tech needs to demonstrate that it takes these issues seriously. Ignoring these risks, particularly when Congress is already investigating potential market power abuse, will no doubt invite lawmakers to impose regulations on their own terms.