A sixteen-month investigation into tech giants including Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google has finally been completed with the filing of a lawsuit against Google by the Department of Defense (including eleven State Attorneys General). While the final majority report of the investigation, a 449 page behemoth published by the House Judiciary Committee’s Democrat majority, alleged that all four companies had drifted towards monopoly and that all four companies should have antitrust action taken against them, the only lawsuit currently in place is with Google.
Attorney General William Barr described Google as “the gatekeeper of the Internet” and the suit alleges that the company’s various anti-competitive tacticshave put it in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. While these anti-competitive tactics vary in scope, Google is accused of prioritizing its own products (like Google Maps and Youtube) in search results, as well as entering into exclusivity contracts with hardware companies like Apple, making their system unavoidable for consumers.
Similarly, Amazon touts itself as the ideal online retailer for third-party vendors (and is often the site that will get the most traffic), but produces a huge quantity of its own competing products, which are often priced lower (which is made possible in part by the money Amazon makes from these third-party retailers) and prioritized in the search above other options. Apple has been accused of using its control over the App Store to threaten competitors, most famously when Epic Games’ Fortnite was removed from the App Store over a dispute about in-app purchases. Apple’s ability to simply cut off access to a popular game for millions of people is a monopolistic power that’s difficult to ignore. Finally, Facebook’s part in the report is an investigation of its acquisition of social media competitor Instagram, which was clearly described in internal emails as a way to “stifle a potential competitor before it could become a threat.”
The report includes recommendations for antitrust actions to be taken against all four companies, but many of these recommendations have been slammed by Republican members of the House Judiciary committee, as well as the companies themselves. In a blog post, Amazon described these recommendations as “misguided,” “ill-conceived,” and “flawed.”
What actions can and should engineers take to prevent monopolistic behaviors by tech companies? Do they have an ethical obligation to take any actions at all?