The new spotlight on these companies doesn’t come out of nowhere. They sit, substantively, at the heart of the biggest and most pressing issues facing the United States, and often stand on the less popular side of those: automation and inequality, trust in public life, privacy and security. They make the case that growth and transformation are public goods — but the public may not agree.
So Facebook should probably ease out of the business of bland background statements and awkward photo ops, and start worrying about congressional testimony. Amazon, whose market power doesn’t fall into the categories envisioned by pre-internet antitrust law, is developing a bipartisan lobby that wants to break it up. Google’s public affairs efforts are starting to look a bit like the oil industry’s.
You can see the tracks laid for each of the tech giants, and there’s no clear way off this path — to downward poll numbers and normal, grubby politics — for any of them.
The new era for them will be normal politics, normal regulation, with California senators deep in their pockets who fight for them as hard as Texans fight for oil, but with a deep bipartisan current flowing against them.
People watching this from afar sometimes suggest that tech simply has too much money to stop. This is nonsense. Politics is run by politicians, and while they like money, they like attention more. People who think the money tech spends can buy protection from the political system misunderstand their dynamic: The transfers of money referred to blandly as “campaign finance” are equal parts bribery and extortion, and the system works best when the target is scared.