Congressional Pressure on Big Tech: 4 Takeaways for K-12 Leaders

By Benjamin Herold — August 04, 2020 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Four of the technology industry’s biggest companies were grilled by Congress last week, with leaders from both parties raising big questions that bear on public education.

The daylong virtual hearing, held by the House Judiciary Committee, was primarily focused on the ostensible monopoly power held by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, most of whom have growing, if sometimes indirect, footprints in the K-12 sector.

“Their control of the marketplace allows them to do whatever it takes to crush independent business and expand their own power,” said Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the committee’s Democratic chairperson. “Some need to be broken up. All need to be properly regulated and held accountable.”

The Judiciary Committee is in the midst of a year-long investigation that is expected to yield a scathing report about the anti-competitive practices of the tech giants. The Department of Justice is also said to be pursuing an antitrust suit against Google.

Among the accusations that flew during last Wednesday’s hearing:

  • Amazon was criticized for using its massive online platform to determine which other products sell well, then undercutting them with its own private-label alternatives.
  • Apple was accused of using its popular App Store to punish rivals to services the company itself offers.
  • Facebook was slammed for making corporate acquisitions in order to “neutralize a competitor,” words taken from one of founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s own emails, collected by the committee as part of its investigation.
  • Google was pressed on favoring its own pages and products in search and advertising.

Like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Google’s Sundar Pichai, Zuckerberg of Facebook defended his company vigorously.

“We compete hard. We compete fairly. We try to be the best,” he said.

Here are four issues from the hearing for the K-12 sector to keep an eye on:

1. Tech companies controlling markets to which their own products have privileged access

This is the biggest complaint against the tech titans. The general argument is that because technology companies control “essential infrastructure” (think Amazon’s online marketplace, or Google’s online search engine), they are able to give their own products and services unfair advantages while controlling the extent to which consumers and other companies can find and do business with each other. The implications stretch across nearly every sector of society.

One example, raised by Rep. Lucy McBath, Democrat from Georgia: At the same time Apple released its Screen Time feature, it allegedly removed from its app store a number of third-party apps that provided similar functionality.

Schools are also affected by this dynamic, maintained Doug Levin of EdTech Strategies. He said the current marketplace resembles a “feudal system” in which school district IT administrators often work to align their technology offerings to the products and services of a single big tech provider. Such an approach may be convenient and come with some benefits, but it also can leave districts “beholden to the changing whims and aims of their masters,” Levin said.

Among the drawbacks: “Significant risk to cost containment, choice of solution provider, control over data privacy and security, and interoperability,” he argued.

2. Pandemic profiteering?

Democratic Representative Jerry Nadler of New York leveled this charge at Tim Cook of Apple, specifically raising schools as a potential area where the company might “extract commissions” from businesses that change their models from in-person to online amid coronavirus-related shutdowns and closures.

“School is about to start around the country and millions of parents and students will attend school online. They will rely on apps to talk to teachers, tutors and virtual learning tools. Are these online learning on Apple’s list to monetize?” Nadler said.

Cook denied the charge, saying Apple’s commission model has long been in place and is a good deal for developers seeking access to the App Store.

The Software and Information Industry Association declined to comment on whether they’ve seen any evidence of Apple charging exorbitant or unusual commissions to ed-tech services trying to move into the app store in recent months.

3. The possibility of big tech companies’ acquisition strategies quashing innovation

It was Facebook that found itself in Congress’s crosshairs on this issue, particularly with regard to its 2012 purchase of Instagram, “exactly the type of anticompetitive acquisition that the antitrust laws were designed to prevent,” Nadler said. The concern is that big companies gobbling up potential competitors before they can get a foothold stifles innovation.

The same dynamic is at play in the K-12 market, said Levin of EdTech Strategies, although Silicon Valley’s Big Four aren’t often directly involved.

“The ed-tech market is made up of many small companies and only a handful of large ones, who are still dwarfed in size by those who participated in the hearing,” he said. “Given the ability of these outsized players to influence the market in which smaller companies operate, to say nothing of the risk that they might choose to directly compete with promising new entrants and sustain an operating loss indefinitely while doing so, special risks are borne by those seeking to truly offer innovative new products.”

4. How the flow of misinformation about COVID-19 might shape the debate about school reopenings

While Wednesday’s focus was mostly on tech companies’ monopoly power, several Republican members of the Judiciary Committee chose to instead level complaints that Facebook and Google, in particular, were censoring conservative viewpoints on social media. That quickly veered into an acrimonious conversation over the companies’ proper role in managing the flow of information, and misinformation, related to COVID-19 and the politically charged issue of whether to restart in-person schooling this fall.

Take this statement, from Representative Greg Steube, Republican from Florida.

There are rioting groups that are going unchecked with the posting of what I would contend is very violent video, yet yesterday I was sent a YouTube video about doctors discussing hydroxychloroquine and discussing the dangers of children not returning to school, and when I clicked on the link, it was taken down...How can doctors giving their opinion on a drug they think is effective for the treatment of COVID-19 and doctors who think it's appropriate for children to return back to school violate YouTube's community guidelines when all of these videos of violence is [sic] all posted on YouTube?"

Pichai, the CEO of Google and its parent company Alphabet, through which YouTube operates as a subsidiary, said the company believes in freedom of expression and allows “robust debate,” but will remove videos that explicitly state something is a proven cure for COVID-19 when that claim does not meet CDC guidelines.

Is misinformation about COVID-19, or tech companies’ decision to remove it from platforms such as YouTube, making states’ and school districts’ decisions about whether and how to reopen schools more difficult?

Both the Council of Chief State School Officers and AASA, the Superintendents’ Association, declined to comment.

Image: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

See also:

for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP