Opinion: Break up big tech

 In July 2019

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While editing Alyssa Pressler’s on the iFLY indoor skydiving venue in Concord, I visited the company’s website to check for accuracy. Within hours, my Facebook feed included an ad from iFLY inviting me to imitate Peter Pan.

Long ago, I gave up complaining about such an intrusion. The marketing sharpies really can’t hurt me, and I don’t have any great secrets anyway. Plus, I hold a defeatist attitude: There’s no reason to fight the machine.

Thank goodness others aren’t so timid. It’s long overdue, but key lawmakers and influencers are waking up to the negative effects of tech giants Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. After years of looking the other way, Congress is holding hearings studying their impact. Among the more unabashed critics is conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, whose June essay “Overthrow the Prince of Facebook” noted “everybody knows they’re too powerful, too arrogant, loom too large in public life.”

Noonan’s solution: “Break them up. Break them in two, in three; regulate them. Declare them to be what they’ve so successfully become: once a pleasure, now a utility.”

My annoyance about the iFLY ad is trivial except when considering the chain of events: An entrepreneurial entertainment company builds a website that almost assuredly relies on a tech giant to help grab personal information. I could reject the tracking software, maybe, but that would make my fact-checking either difficult or impossible.

iFLY then pays Facebook to target an unwanted ad at me. It’s a more efficient advertising buy than for iFLY to spend money for my local newspaper’s print or online editions — or maybe even certain magazines that circulate around North Carolina.

The result is the collapse of the publishing industry’s business model, a condition so severe that it was a key subject in last month’s congressional hearings. Google and Facebook now grab about 60% of U.S. digital advertising revenue, which is expected to exceed TV ad spending this year for the first time.

Arrogance and short-sightedness by print moguls exacerbated the industry’s decline. But can anyone argue that Google or Facebook execs care more about Gastonia’s future than the Gaston Gazette’s leadership, much less any other community across our state? Current trends suggest there soon won’t be a Gaston Gazette, or other newspapers like it.

Beyond my iFLY annoyance, I agree with Noonan that there’s an increasing agreement about Big Tech’s negative impacts: Mostly unchecked misuse of social media has helped erode democracies across the world; anti-competitive behavior such as Facebook’s purchase of Instagram reduces choice and innovation; Amazon abuses competition by serving as both an online shopping platform and a seller of its own products that receive favorable treatment.

Big Tech “may be more socially powerful than the trusts of the Roosevelt era, and yet they still operate like a black box,” Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri who wrote a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, told The New York Times.

To be sure, the odds that Congress will rein in Big Tech are about as good as my ability to fly outside the Concord wind tunnel. The big four tech companies spent a combined $55 million for lobbying last year, double the level in 2017. They have 238 federal lobbyists, including a former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and unlimited resources.

Like Peter Pan, one can always dream.

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