After over a year of denial, and donor-induced apathy in the face of the Snowflake Barons of Silicon Valley, a change is finally in the air. By the looks of it, tech could be in for a long, hot summer.
To begin with, last month saw the fierce questioning of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who was grilled by both parties at a temperature that even George Foreman would think was a bit too high. Subsequently, Zuckerberg’s company was placed in the crosshairs again by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who invited Trump supporters and online censorship victims Diamond and Silk to testify before Congress. And while the hearing hit some procedural stumbling blocks, the fact that it occured at at all was a welcome departure from the Republican line that online censorship is the privilege of private companies, no matter how destructive or dangerous it might be to the free exchange of ideas.
But while the Zuckerberg and Diamond and Silk hearings were light skirmishes in Washington’s approaching battle with the Big Tech companies, a much more substantive and serious challenge has just been mounted.
As most of those who follow the world of Big Tech already know, much of the dominance by the so-called FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) can be traced not to pure Darwinian economic advantage, but often to government help. Google alone, for example, draws over $600 billion in government subsidies. Or, more indirectly, Amazon receives preferential treatment from the U.S. Postal Service.
Except, in Amazon’s case, it’s more than just the post office that has been teeing up to offer special treatment. The online shopping giant also has been snapping up government subsidies as fast as it can in the intelligence and defense arenas. It has done this by encouraging government agencies to move huge troughs of their data—including extremely sensitive data—exclusively onto the Amazon cloud servers. Never mind that this gives hackers an obvious single target to hit, or that innovation is harder in such a monopolistic environment: Amazon’s lobbyists don’t care about such things.
And so far, they’ve been both unchallenged and apparently persuasive in their quest for market dominance over America’s secrets. As an example, the CIA has already turned over its massive amounts of data to Amazon, in what the Atlantic termed a “radical departure from business as usual.” Of course, that particular act was done under the supervision of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the Obama administration, who were particularly fond of rewarding allies in the tech community, so while it’s alarming, it’s also not particularly surprising.
What is surprising is that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was, until recently, poised to follow in Clapper’s footsteps and turn over all the data from the Department of Defense to Amazon as well, despite serving under a president who is far more skeptical of the shopping giant, and to whom Amazon’s founder seems inclined to return the sentiment. And yet, despite this, Mattis had been lining up all his ducks in a row, expecting to award a massive multibillion dollar contract to Amazon’s cloud computing service known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI). How much Mattis himself has directed this is a matter for some debate, however, seeing as the more likely culprits are the committee tasked with awarding the contract—the Cloud Executive Steering Group (CESG). And why are they more likely? Because the group is stacked with Amazon partisans and former employees: a troubling example of regulatory capture if ever there was one.
Given the in-the-weeds nature of the project, one can see where it might slip under President Trump’s watchful eye. No president has time personally to scrutinize every project that his administration agrees to fund. Fortunately, Congress does appear to be interested in why the Department of Defense is forking over all its data to Amazon without—and this is key—even so much as looking at what competitors would offer.
That is the question posed by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who has threatened to cut funding for the JEDI program dramatically unless Mattis explains why his department is engaging in such blatant favoritism. Given the aforementioned regulatory capture of the CESG, and the many, many downsides to putting all of the Pentagon’s data in one easily targeted place, that question could raise a host of others, and potentially shine a light on Silicon Valley’s hold over Washington institutions: a leftover element, no doubt, from the Obama Administration.
So let’s hope Thornberry sticks to his guns. Because if he gets the answers he’s looking for, it could very well be the shot heard round the world in Washington’s decision to police more aggressively the overlords of tech. Or, if not the shot heard round the world, at least it will be heard in Seattle and Silicon Valley.
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