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First step in tech regulation

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks via video conference

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks via video conference during the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on Online Platforms and Market Power in the Rayburn House office Building, July 29, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  Credit: Getty Images/Pool

Wednesday’s tech titan congressional hearing was an important milestone.

That’s because technology is as crucial to modernity as electricity and water. It connects the nation like broadband, television, radio, or the railroad system of an earlier era. Yet leading companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are so big and so unregulated that they can stifle competition and have enormous power over public life.

The regulatory concerns about these four companies are distinct and Congress will need a complex but specific arsenal of rules to address consumer and market concerns. Yet the companies' size and swagger present similar problems. Together, they are worth trillions of dollars. They are large enough to bully smaller companies, as Google tried to do with lyric website Genius, or simply absorb potential competitors, as Facebook did with Instagram. Like Amazon, they can leverage their own size, making upstart challenges impossible and undercutting other retailers. And Amazon's dominance over the cloud data storage business is enormous. Collectively, the tech giants hold the keys that people all over the world need to gain access to the online world, be it Apple’s iPhone or a Google search.

All that centralized and too-little-examined power is particularly troubling when companies haphazardly skip out on taxes, disrupt other rule-following industries, or don’t find it in their business interest to prevent the spread of false information on social media. That’s something that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are just beginning to tackle, emphasis on “beginning.” As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeated Wednesday, his company does not want to be “arbiters of truth.”

Yet Zuckerberg and the other tech leaders — awash in billions from our clicks and likes — owe users more than a shrug.

The hearing itself was more election-year theater than a road map for improving antitrust enforcement. It underscored the uphill battle to come as a sclerotic body rouses itself to tame a feisty engine of the world economy. On the one hand, composed tech founders cited company stats to bat away questions. On the other hand, representatives were still trying to play catch-up in terms of tech know-how. Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, for one, used the Stone Age term “the net" during his remarks.

There was plenty of grandstanding and sometimes confusing lines of questioning as the committee performed for the cameras. Still, Republicans who focused on the alleged stifling of conservative thought on social media underscored the importance of all this: technology undergirds the modern public square. Decisions about technology are decisions about democracy.

Congress must use available regulatory powers or perhaps create new ones to bring more fairness and oversight into the technological Wild West. The European Union, which has swung a much bigger stick against the excesses of Big Tech, could be a helpful model. There are many ways to proceed.

The hearings served as an opening act for what’s to come, finding a way to allow technology to continue improving our lives without taking over.

— The editorial board