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

By Benjamin Herold — August 04, 2020 5 min read
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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 tools...next 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

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