Keeping Big Tech in check

Published 9:44 am Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Bipartisanship has been hard to come by over the last two years, but one thing my Democratic colleagues and I share is a deep concern about Big Tech’s growing influence. These companies play an outsized role in our economy, in our schools, and in our own daily lives, and lately, it has become clear that the industry is both incapable of and unwilling to check its worst impulses.
In my roles on the Senate Commerce Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how policymakers should approach the unpredictable and at times dangerous new world that technology is creating for us. As a mom and a grandmom, these issues are at the top of my mind. I had another mom tell me recently, “I once felt that, when I had my kids home and we had locked the doors, we were safe — that we were safe from the outside world. But the pandemic happened, and I realized we were not. The enemy, the evil, the harm that was wrecking my child’s life — the drug traffickers, the sex traffickers, the pedophiles — they were right in there with us.”
Depression, self-harm, and suicide in teens have increased at an alarming rate in recent years. While there are various explanations for why this has happened, remember that the 2010s ushered in the golden age of social media, transforming it from a novelty into an almost-mandatory activity — especially for young people. We now know that teens who are heavy users of social media lose on average an hour of sleep every night, and between 2011 and 2016, sleep deprivation in teens increased by almost 20 percent. This in turn put them at increased risk for depression, and the statistics following this trend are particularly bleak. Between 2011 and 2018, the rates of teen depression increased by more than 60 percent, with the largest increase among young girls. Between 2011 and 2015, emergency room admissions for children and teens for depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric issues rose by 28 percent. Before the rapid rise of social media, suicide by young people had stabilized and declined for decades. Now, it is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10-24. In 2018, Pew released a survey revealing that close to 60% of youth have experienced some form of abuse online. When that abuse escalates, so do the consequences. Over the past two years, I have worked with dozens of parents and friends of young people who died because of what they encountered on social media. That’s why I put forward a bipartisan initiative — the Kids Online Safety Act — that would give kids and parents the tools and transparency they need to stay safe and require social media companies to make their platforms safer by default.
Through our bipartisan work on Capitol Hill, we have also learned about the serious challenges innovative startups and developers face when trying to get their products into the marketplace. In Tennessee, I have heard from many such developers about how Apple and Google use their powerful gatekeeper control to stifle competition in the app store market.
Here in the United States, the mobile app market represents a reliable, multibillion-dollar payday for Big Tech, with Americans downloading 12.2 billion apps to their devices in 2021. Currently, Apple completely prevents consumers from accessing third-party apps and app stores on their mobile devices. And while Google allows more access to outside apps, they make the process so difficult that they might as well just lock down their devices too.
But wait: the anti-competitive behavior doesn’t stop there. Both companies also take a 15 to 30 percent cut from every digital goods transaction in their stores. Additionally, these businesses will collect confidential data from the developers on their app stores and use it to compete with them, and then prevent app developers from directly contacting their customers to offer them better deals.
Senator Blumenthal and I recognized how big of a problem this creates for the free and fair marketplace. Last year, we put forward an initiative, the Open App Markets Act, that creates clear rules of the road for big gatekeepers like Apple and Google by requiring them to allow third-party apps and app stores on devices, preventing developers from getting locked into in-app payment arrangements, protecting confidential business information, and allowing developers to communicate with their customers.
Technology is rapidly changing society as we know it, and we have to find ways to keep up. These proposals represent two critical steps Congress can — and must — take now if we want to retain the ability to keep these companies in check.
(Marsha Blackburn represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.)

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