Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple antitrust probe: What’s the big deal?

Google and other big tech firms are under pressure by the US Congress due to fears of anti-competitive behaviour. Congress have demanded key documents to be handed over for investigation. (PHOTO: Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash)
  • Tech giants under pressure to be transparent with data collection and advertising practices 
  • Big tech firms have tools to control what consumers see online 
  • Consumers must understand the risks of providing extensive personal information 

By Osmond Chia

The tech industry is no stranger to controversy. It was only last year that European Union lawmakers and US senators publicly grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

Big tech has come under fire again in recent weeks, on a scale never seen before. The US Congress told the world’s largest tech corporations to hand over key documents that are usually kept out of the public eye. 

Congress is digging deep with their demands. The type of documents they want released include hundreds of financial statements and specific details of corporate practices, which can be read here.   

Politicians are also calling for greater transparency in their data collection practices. With so much power circulating within these corporations, Congress is getting worried about what goes on behind the scenes in these top companies. 

Immense power in the hands of a few
Most of us know the names of tech’s Big Four. Google is recognised for its search engine; Apple for tech products; Amazon for e-commerce; and Facebook for practically inventing social media. But behind these services, these corporations are first and foremost advertising agencies (well, minus Apple, but we will get to them in a bit).   

PHOTO: www.emarketer.com
PHOTO: www.emarketer.com

Businesses go to Google, Facebook and Amazon to get their goods and services publicised. Few other online advertising platforms exist on the Big Four’s scale. 

According to eMarketer, Facebook has over 22 per cent of the U.S. digital advertising market share in 2019. 

Google leads the race with over 37 per cent of the market, not to mention 92 per cent of the search ads market. Search ads refer to the advertisements that pop up on your browsers, your search engine results and what you see first on your feed. 

Businesses have few choices for mass online advertising besides these powerhouses.  

With tech giants commanding such a dominant grip on the industry, any corrupt practices within these companies would massively impact consumers, most of who are left in the dark because they fail to read the Big Four’s terms and conditions.  

If much of what is advertised to the public comes from Google and Facebook, big tech virtually dictates the things we desire.  

Concerns of foul play 
Without regulation, tech giants are given free reign over what consumers see online. The possibilities are endless.  

Companies can steer messages from their competitors away from certain demographics. Selective targeting gives them control over who receives certain ads and messages.  

Facebook was already confronted by US lawmakers last year for providing options to advertisers that allowed them to discriminate against profiles based on age, ethnicity and religion. 

Google collects and stores personal information of its users from photos, documents and web-browsing data. How exactly Google uses this is still a mystery, and fears of mishandling are of great concern to lawmakers.  

Where Apple is headed 

Apple is amongst the four companies under fire by the US Congress. The company was recently accused of stealing ideas from apps on their App Store. (PHOTO: Photo by Medhat Dawoud on Unsplash)
Apple is amongst the four companies under fire by the US Congress. The company was recently accused of stealing ideas from apps on their App Store. (PHOTO: Medhat Dawoud on Unsplash)

Apple is not caught in the same advertising concerns as the other three, but its size and dominance in the industry is enough to make Congress nervous.  

Just this month, Apple was accused of stealing popular ideas from apps on their App Store and incorporating them into its own software. The original apps are inevitably driven out of business. 

Apple’s ambitions lie way beyond phones and gear — it has its eye on providing services as well. September’s Apple Event raised the spotlight on Apple TV, Music, Games, iCloud and news services. All these have massive potential in data-collecting and advertising. Apple won’t be all about iPhones and MacBooks much longer.  

What changes for us?  
The US Congress is forcing big tech to reconsider their role and responsibility in advertising and collecting data. If Congress has its way, expect to see a change in how corporations manage “terms and conditions” by putting transparency and clear objectives at the forefront. Corporations of all sizes will need to reconsider how information can be collected and monetised ethically.    

These events also put the onus on consumers to understand the nature of the tech industry and know what is being offered in exchange for services.   

Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple have until 14 Oct this year to respond to the state’s long list of enquiries. 

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