Big Tech has long faced calls for more regulation, and as their companies have grown, so has the pressure. Now those demands are coming from within Silicon Valley itself. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told Axios that, though he supports the free market, it’s only a matter of time before Big Tech is restricted. “We have to admit when the free market is not working. And it hasn’t worked here,” Cook said. “I think it’s inevitable that there will be some level of regulation.” Indeed, a newly released Axios poll found that 55 percent of Americans “fear the federal government won’t do enough to regulate big tech companies.” That figure is up 15 points over last year.
The problem is that, if implemented, such regulations would only entrench existing firms and hurt consumers.
As Axios notes, Big Tech regulation has become “a rare topic uniting Republicans, Democrats and Independents.” In August, Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, floated the idea of turning tech giants into public utilities. On the Left, writer Richard Eskow went even further by calling for companies like Amazon and Google to be nationalized. The young right-wing firebrand Charlie Kirk recently advocated that Google be classified as a monopoly and anti-trust law be brought to bear against it.
It’s understandable why so many across the political spectrum have an uneasiness about Big Tech. After all, it has an immense amount of power, especially in regard to stored information.
But increased regulation will only empower Big Tech and leave it less accountable than before. The “revolving door,” through which officials move between government and the private sector, allows businesses to heavily influence regulation. Sometimes they’ll even advocate that regulation be increased as a means of ensuring that the new regulations work to their advantage. When groups like Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, whose members already pay employees “well over the minimum wage,” advocate for an increase in the minimum wage, it’s not out of benevolence toward workers. They want to force their competitors to pay more in the hope of driving them out of business. In economics, this is known as regulatory capture, an idea developed by Nobel laureate George Stigler.
Another tactic is making the regulatory hurdle so high that it ensures new competition and smothers startups in the cradle. A startup in someone’s basement can’t afford an army of lawyers to navigate through reams of regulations like Google and Facebook can.
Historically, Big Tech has been hands-off when it comes to lobbying, but that’s starting to change and the numbers show it. In 2017, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple spent over $50 million on lobbying, a 32 percent increase for Facebook and a 51 percent increase for Apple. In fairness, that’s much less than other industries spend on lobbying—but as talk of regulation increases, expect to see Big Tech kick up its lobbying even further and for its competition to get squelched.
In a free market, companies only have the power that consumers give them when they make their consumption choices. Google, Facebook, and Amazon are huge and powerful because so many choose to utilize their services. Economist Ludwig von Mises called this “consumer sovereignty,” writing, “The captain is the consumer. Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that.” No matter how large a business is, if it doesn’t give consumers what they want, it will eventually falter. Just look at Nokia. In 2007, the company controlled almost 50 percent of the world’s smartphone market. By 2013, that number had fallen to less than 5 percent. Such a drastic change in fortunes occurred because consumers chose to make it happen—and because other companies innovated more to attract them.
But if Big Tech becomes entrenched and protected from competition through regulation, the consumer’s power over them is diminished. It’s a recipe for decreased innovation and customer service. Big Tech is kept on its toes by the fear of becoming the next Nokia, which is why they spend tens of billions of dollars every year on research and development. There will be far less incentive to do so if they know that they’re safe from potential upstarts supplanting them.
Big Tech has big problems, but increased regulation will only lead to more lobbying, less competition, and less innovation. Consumers have given Big Tech its power, and as long as there are competition and alternatives, they also have the power to take it away. Let’s hang on to that control rather than demanding that the government exercise it for us.
Zachary Yost is a Young Voices contributor and a research assistant at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship. He is currently a political theory graduate student at the Catholic University of America. Follow him @ZacharyYost.