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Muddled meme: Congress wants to dismantle ‘Big Tech’ but does anyone else care?

Christopher Koopman, executive director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State State University, poses for a portrait at Jon M. Huntsman Hall at Utah State University in Logan on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.
Christopher Koopman, executive director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State State University, poses for a portrait at Jon M. Huntsman Hall at Utah State University in Logan on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While Democratic and Republican officials have been criticizing the conduct of U.S. “Big Tech” companies, a growing disconnect separates those crusading politicians from the way a lot of consumers are feeling.

It turns out, a close look at the attitudes of the average Jills and Joes who use the tech products and platforms every day reveals that, frankly, they really don’t care that much.

Bipartisan outrage ran rampant at a recent congressional hearing at which the heads of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google were pummeled with accusations of misdeeds and abuse of their market power while being compared to early 20th century industrialist robber barons with names like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

President Donald Trump weighed in ahead of the proceeding in late July, telling reporters “there’s no question that what the big tech companies are doing is very bad” when he was asked about potential actions against social media company, TikTok. The president has railed against Amazon.com and its founder/CEO Jeff Bezos since taking office, and signed an executive order in May aiming to institute new regulations on social media platforms just days after Twitter posted a fact-check notice on a Trump tweet about mail-in voting.

Rep. David Cicilline, D- Rhode Island, is chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, which hosted the well-known tech CEOs in late July. Cicilline and his House colleagues were armed with a trove of material, the work product of an investigation that had been in play for over a year. The committee chairman said the inquiry had, in his opinion, uncovered evidence that Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook were guilty of “killing the small business, manufacturing and the overall dynamism that are the engines of the American economy.”

“Many of the practices used by these companies have harmful economic effects,” Cicilline said. “They discourage entrepreneurship, hike costs and degrade quality.

“Simply put, they have too much power.”

And federal officials are not alone when it comes to putting the actions of U.S. tech behemoths under the legal microscope.

Multiple active investigations looking at tech companies by U.S. state attorneys general are currently underway, including two expansive efforts that have Facebook and Google in the crosshairs.

As Congress prepares to release its investigative findings, and state prosecutors continue to work toward possible indictments, the leading U.S. tech concerns share more than just the ire of elected officials who have been making political hay by pillorying them. These companies are all crushing it in their various enterprise spaces, and while some will point to that as further evidence that malfeasance is afoot, a more simple explanation might be that consumers’ love for these companies’ services and products is just more powerful than their collective concerns over good corporate conduct.

New data from university-based research group Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University suggests that may be exactly the case, particularly when user sentiment is filtered for opinions that may be being driven by the Beltway news cycle.

Christopher Koopman, executive director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State State University, poses for a portrait at Jon M. Huntsman Hall at Utah State University in Logan on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.
Christopher Koopman, executive director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State State University, poses for a portrait at Jon M. Huntsman Hall at Utah State University in Logan on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

The national survey overseen by the Center for Growth and Opportunity and conducted by pollster YouGov in July, found that trust in big tech companies, with Google as a stand-alone example, varied widely based on how much political news a respondent followed. While 47% of self-identified news junkies said they either partially or completely distrusted Google to collect and use their personal data, only 18% of those who “hardly” follow political news registered distrust in the search giant’s use of personal information.

Christopher Koopman, executive director for the Center for Growth and Opportunity, said the polling data not only reflects a disconnect between the general population and the stances of many elected officials, but profound attitude differences in the respondents based on their relative news consumption habits.

“Much of the anti-tech sentiment is the product of Beltway politics,” Koopman wrote in a report on the polling data. “Many questions we asked about these companies seem to divide Americans based on those who closely follow political news and those who do not.

”On the surface, it is easy to watch what is happening today and think that Americans have soured on tech companies. In reality, however, this is more a reflection of insider politics than anything else. Our poll results indicate that, in many ways, the ‘techlash’ is a Beltway-manufactured crisis echoed only by those who follow it closely.”

In an interview with the Deseret News, Koopman said the survey, which gathered responses from 1,000 U.S. adults, is reflecting a bigger trend when it comes to national issues.

“I think the conversations happening right now focused on tech companies are emblematic of other conversations across the country,” Koopman said. “The issues in many ways have become unmoored from the bedrock principles of antitrust conduct and consumer welfare ... and politics and political theater are elevated over intellectual honesty.”

Koopman noted that the attacks on tech companies reflect a rare moment of bipartisanship at a time when most issues are serving to widen the political gap.

“The tech companies are being criticized on the left and right for slightly different reasons but the underlying arguments being made are quite similar,” Koopman said. “(Democratic Sen. Elizabeth) Warren and (Republican Sen. Ted) Cruz may not agree on much, but they would agree that Big Tech is a problem.”

When it comes to how tech companies impact quality of life issues, the Center for Growth and Opportunity survey showed that when it comes to Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, the majority said a government-imposed breakup would either make their individual lives “worse off” or they were unsure of potential impacts.

If viewed through the lens of market performance, the stockholders in these companies have become decidedly better off in the last six months.

All four tech giants have seen meteoric rises in market values with Apple, at one point in August, hitting the unprecedented $2 trillion mark and earning the company the title of most valuable U.S. company in history.

Along with record earnings, U.S. tech companies also appear to be riding a tide of new consumer confidence amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to data collected in April by Harris Insights and Analytics, 81% of Americans approve of large tech companies helping to trace coronavirus cases they may have been exposed to. And 38% said their view of the tech industry has, overall, become more positive since the start of the outbreak.

In an opinion piece for The Hill, Joshua Brown, industry commentator and CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, wrote that comparing the conduct of modern tech companies to the titans of the Industrial Age and their attendant monopolies, is a faulty analogy.

“The monopolies of past eras of American history attracted the ire of antitrust proponents because, upon attaining a certain size within their industries, they had become abusive to everyday consumers who found themselves with a limited amount of choice,” Brown wrote.

“What’s tricky about today’s alleged monopolists is that they’ve actually used their size to do the opposite. Consumers have not been harmed by Amazon’s dominance over e-commerce, they actually love it, which is why there are over 100 million Prime users paying an annual membership fee for the privilege.”

And Brown noted that consumers continue to underscore their lack of outrage over the conduct of big tech concerns in the most basic way possible — by continuing to use the services.

“Consumers have benefited from the size of these companies and they plainly like the integration of their apps, their preferences, their shopping habits and their browsing history,” Brown wrote. “If they didn’t, they’d simply sign out and stop using them altogether.

“But no one signs out.”