The Zimbabwean Perspective

A look at our lives and the tech we use in them

Business Editorial Money Tech

America’s Congress Antitrust Hearing: What we can learn from it and why the Zimbabwean Government shouldn’t have one at all.

A series of lessons consumers and regulators in Zimbabwe should learn…

Now it may seem like those two lessons are contradictory, but in fact they aren’t. If you’ve watched the video above (courtesy of The Verge) you’ll find the basic reason for why this hearing was held, as well as the one year investigation preceding it . In simple terms, Amazon, Google , Apple and Facebook have become monopolies in their own right, and like any monopoly they essentially are making sure they don’t gain any meaningful competition through either stifling innovation or growth of smaller businesses, gathering data on them, or misusing their power in ways that actually harm consumers and users of their platforms. And of course, since these company’s are all monopolies, that means no matter what disadvantage they come with, consumers likely can’t move to anything else because there aren’t any compelling or adequate competitors partially because these companies have made sure that isn’t the case. We’ll break down what every company’s main transgression (according to the hearing) are below:

Facebook

Pretty much the poster boy for American Congress hearings, Facebook has been attending congress hearings ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal from 2016, over it’s massive amount of user data that’s been mishandled, sold to nefarious actors and misused by the company over the past few years. This data of course comes from Facebook’s extensive social media empire, ranging from the site itself to it’s messenger app to Instagram and even to WhatsApp. Outside of Twitter and SnapChat, Facebook essentially owns the world’s biggest social media platforms, and it’s been shown that the company literally achieved that dominance by buying the competition, and continues to buy any small startups that may in any way cause a threat in future. It’s easy to see this as just great business strategy, and to some extent it might be. But if this same company has caused the crushing of multiple small businesses, purposeful radicalization of many of it’s users into angry fighting mobs , multiple data leaks that have targeted people around the world and even the negative influence of its own country’s elections, then obviously said company needs to be put in check.
 

Google

The Sundar Pichai-run company is often given the image of a bunch of plucky nerds trying to build great things and fumbling along the way, similar to the cast of HBO’s Silicon Valley , but Google time and time again prove they are a much more sinister force when no one is paying attention. After already having hearings and penalties from the European Union over the past two years, this time Google is mainly charged with it’s dominance in searching the web, something which may seem rudimentary but if you think about it, how else would you navigate the internet without often searching for something on a search engine first, and for 90% of us that search engine is Google Search. The problem here is Google has of late not exactly been handling search fairly, in fact often manipulating which results come at the top of a search query, partially due to it’s ad business , which CEO Sundar Pichai was also interrogated over, but also in order to keep directing users to it’s own services, hence keeping them within Google’s own ecosystem and gathering more user data on them, which some users may not be willing to have gathered on them. What’s more frightening is that due to Google Search being the dominant search engine, and Google manipulating what users get when they use it, Google is essentially manipulating a user’s experience of the internet , and of course no one wants that.

Apple

The world’s most valuable company is given a lot of flack for being anti-consumer time after time by both Apple users and fans of the competition. Apple makes tons of choices time and time again that users don’t actually want in the guise of a luxury experience, and as we discovered over the past few months, it’s rigid and stringent attitude isn’t directed just at customers, but at it’s app developers as well, especially those who develop iOS products. However the strict practices Apple takes towards developers are much more sinister, with the recent BaseCamp debacle showing the company to be a bit of a mobster-like bully to developers that can command a certain amount of profit, essentially forcing them to give the company money unless they want to be booted off the Apple App Store.  This is what Apple was mainly interrogated over, with CEO Tim Cook trying to avoid the accusation of Apple’s monopoly power by claiming that both developers and users could easily switch to Android or Windows, or more ridiculously the Xbox or the PlayStation, which of course makes no sense as only Android is any real direct competitor to the iPhone and the Android app ecosystem works considerably different to Apple’s own.

Amazon

And finally we get to the firm run by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, a fact which the antitrust committee made sure to bring up as Amazon’s transgressions might be the most directly monopolistic. The firm over the past few years has essentially been “stepping on the little guy” in two main areas:
  1. By seemingly analysing seller data on its online store, then picking specific products doing well on the store, having their own versions manufactured then selling those copycat products sold at a cheaper price on the Amazon store with perks such as faster deliveries or a recommendation from amazon themselves.
  2. By using analysis data from their Amazon Web Services(AWS) cloud hosting platform to study up and coming startups and copying their idea or even more directly copying the ideas in the startups involved in Amazon’s incubation fund.
Both approaches are the definition of a large company stifling the growth of much smaller businesses and of course it doesn’t put a good look on Bezos. In fact, if you can see both from the video above and the more in-depth one below, Bezos spent most of his time deflecting or running away from questions, as he seemingly had no justifiable answers for his company’s practices outside of a proverbial “I don’t know”. It seemingly shows just how much in the wrong Bezos and Amazon know they are, but of course, there’s no way they’ll admit it.
And as such, the effects that all these companies have had not only on America (and to many extents the world’s) tech ecosystem but also small businesses has been negative, stifling growth among many small businesses and mishandling the data, experiences and even information gain of many of their users. It’s a level of meddling that not all of us can fully grasp yet, especially since technology’s effects tend to evolve as the technology evolves as well, but it’s clear that American Congress’ intervention is welcome, and perhaps it’s time Zimbabwe’s government at least learnt the following major lesson :

Learning to check monopolies(for the right reasons)

To say Zimbabwe is run by monopolies would be an understatement. Fast Food is run by Innscor, Beverages by Delta and even though Econet has at least faced some admirable competition from NetOne in the past few years, there’s still no denying that it owns the wireless telecoms game, and that’s without considering the Econet Group’s stake in Liquid Telecoms and their wider play at internet access in the country. And while part of this is again, as usual, to be blamed on the economy. Free market competition isn’t abundant simply because the country has no players to compete with the likes of Delta. But that doesn’t mean that regulatory boards shouldn’t check these monopoly corporations when they start going to far, or making sure they don’t drive market prices beyond what consumers can handle. Internet prices are still the biggest example of this. Ever since early last year they’ve been skyrocketing and even now, in a pandemic where internet access is all the more important, usage is going down because most users seemingly can’t afford to pay for the internet. Firms have come up with promotions sure, but no formal move by POTRAZ has been made to control prices or control anti-user terms such as procurement of their education bundles. This it’s this kind of price control that’s required in times like this, and at the very least POTRAZ and other boards should learn that instead of pulling Econet into court at the government’s behest or otherwise.  And the need to check these companies goes beyond tech firms in Zimbabwe as reigning all monopoly companies from time to time is a must. Yes our economy can’t allow for challenging all of them and winning. But often even that challenging makes a lot of them behave a little more, and Zimbabweans need a lot more of that, especially now.
 

So wait, doesn’t that mean we should have big Antitrust hearings?

Well…no. As much as Zimbabwean customers deserve our own monopolies having oversight , the big antitrust hearing in the US was a major catch-up step, a government that’s clearly let the companies in  it’s country gain a level of power it cannot control (or maybe even comprehend) and is doing everything it can to take some power back. Zimbabwe is nowhere near here yet. In fact while Americans fear too tech companies having too much power, Zimbabweans are continuously fearing the amount of control the government wants to exert over all our industries, all while it’s private companies that have kept the country afloat throughout our myriad of economic turmoil episodes. Simply put, regulation is all that’s needed, not big moves that are supposed to shake everything up. After all that’s what all the Econet vs. RBZ cases are, and we all know the effects those have had on general consumers.
Hence, we don’t need big antitrust hearings yet, but oversight over Zimbabwean monopolies and regulation is a must, especially if any more companies might grow out of this struggling economy or if any consumers are to get their better value for their money. The American Congress hearing allows us to see both sides of this situation, see what we can do better, and hopefully move forward the right way. Chances are, we won’t. But hey, one can still dream and learn right?

Related Stories:

LEAVE A RESPONSE

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *