For Big Tech, There's No Winning This Round

In prize fighting, there is a less-than-glorious path to victory known as “steal the round.” Your opponent may pummel you at the start of three minutes of boxing—or even for the first two minutes and 50 seconds—but in the waning moments of the round you come on strong in front of the ringside judges so as to be declared the winner on their scorecards.

It’s a time-honored technique—one might even call it a hack—for overcoming a powerful foe, and its masters have included titans like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. And I’d suggest that steal-the-round strategizing has been crucial, too, for titans like Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and Sundar Pichai to be judged by the public as victorious, or at least deserving of their enormous power, in the face of angry critics demanding they be taken down.

Repeatedly, when their companies have been accused of misdeeds—allowing disinformation and conspiracy theories to thrive on their platforms, or using their monopoly powers to dominate smaller competitors—they’ve absorbed the blow, conceded the point, and at the last minute, agreed to address the problem by throwing money and employees at it. They have been reactive by design, responding only after journalists have discovered wrongdoing and usually agreeing so quickly that they don’t offer a target to their critics.

Whether in the boxing ring or in politics, however, this strategy wilts in the face of determined, overwhelming opposition. The number of crises seen this week alone—a global pandemic reaching terrible new milestones and a president seemingly at odds with the democratic process—have finally given opponents of the tech companies the tools to successfully challenge how they operate and demand change.

We may well look back at this time as a high-water mark—both in terms of bottom lines as well as their ability to avoid seriously engaging with critics. You can’t offer a hasty, face-saving response to accusations that you promote quack cures for Covid-19, or brag about the exciting new voter-information portal you’ve created as President Trump suggests on social media that he will delay the November election because of made-up concerns about mail-in ballots. The stakes are too high to make a big show for the public and hope to move on.

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Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.That the rules of the game have shifted in ways that we will look back as piercing Silicon Valley’s aura of invincibility was apparent on Wednesday when those four leaders—of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet—appeared before a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust. Armed with emails obtained by subpoena and informed by interviews with those who have been devastated by these companies’ overwhelming market power, the members of the subcommittee drilled down to get the executives to admit they used their monopolistic powers to smash any and all competition.One sharp line of questioning of Zuckerberg by Representative Pramila Jayapal focused on whether Facebook copies the features of its competitors as a means of intimidating them into agreeing to be bought out. Zuckerberg insisted that they were not ruthless capitalists but devoted product developers, whose “job is to make sure we build the best services for people to connect with all the people they care about.” At the end, however, Jayapal curtly concluded: “Facebook’s very model makes it impossible for new companies to flourish separately, and that harms our democracy, it harms mom-and-pop businesses and consumers.”
Much of the hearing was focused on the specific abuse of monopolistic power—aggressive acquisition of potential competitors in the early stages, Google’s promotion of its own content on its search results, or how the price of a box of diapers changed after Amazon acquired the parent company of Diapers.com—but the true target was lack of accountability as an operating principle of these companies. And that has a particular bite during a period of global crisis, during which their digital tools have helped us endure trying circumstances while simultaneously promoting the kind of isolation and misunderstanding that can make emerging from them even harder.