Big Doesn’t Mean Bad: Americans split with government on big tech monopolies

Americans believe there are more than enough options for tech products and services. What they really want is for tech brands to act ethically.

Photo: BP Miller / Unsplash

In Washington, there’s rare bipartisan consensus on a business sector that affects all of us: big tech, both parties agree, has become too big for our own good.

However, the typical American disagrees. In a survey by The Harris Poll, adults across the country agree overwhelmingly that big tech must behave itself and should be held to high ethical standards. Just as overwhelmingly, though, they they do not view these companies as monopolies. In their view, there’s abundant competition and choice in the marketplace. To them, big tech also promotes innovation and boosts America’s reputation around the world. Big, in other words, doesn’t mean bad.

In fact, it seems American sentiment on the presence of monopolies changes based on how companies and the issue are portrayed. When The Harris Poll asked Americans directly whether Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google were monopolies that limit competition and innovation, American adults overwhelmingly sided with the House Judiciary Committee’s findings. Most also said Google should be broken up, with nearly half saying dismantling Facebook would also encourage innovation and protect consumers.

However, when simply evaluating the availability of options, Americans don’t seem to suspect monopolized behavior among technology companies. Across sectors, fewer than 20% of Americans think there are not enough options for technology products and services. Although Google has seen its fair share of controversy, only 11% of Americans feel there aren’t enough options for search engines while 70% of Americans feel there is just the right amount of options. Even though Facebook faces antitrust lawsuits, most Americans (54%) feel there is just the right amount of options for social media products and services, and 36% actually feel there are too many options.

As a result, brands in other tech-related sectors may be able to rest easy. Sectors where only a few Americans feel there aren’t enough options include transportation services like Uber (16%), food delivery services (14%), multi-brand e-commerce retailers like Amazon (13%), fintech services (12%), audio streaming services like Spotify (11%), and video streaming services (11%).

What’s more, Americans generally view big technology companies as promoting innovation and improving America’s international reputation. Seventy-nine percent agree that big technology companies promote innovation within their respective industries, and 67% agree that big technology companies promote competition within their respective industries. Two-thirds (66%) of Americans agree that America’s big technology companies have helped improve America’s reputation abroad.

How can Americans say this while still asserting that the Big 4 – Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google – limit competition and innovation? As leaders in their respective industries, such companies deal with the dichotomy that they both stifle and promote innovation. When thinking about the technology industry in general, Americans see big technology companies for their possibilities. Therefore, on the one hand, big technology brands promote innovation and competition because they have the resources to create new products and services, consequently keeping the industry up to date and competitive, especially compared to foreign technology companies. However, when thinking about specific brands, Americans realize that the biggest technology brands can also stifle innovation and competition because they own or control the process for most industry innovations and have reduced the amount of competitors that can contribute to the sector’s innovations.

While Congress has labeled the Big 4 as monopolies and states are issuing antitrust lawsuits, Americans themselves are divided on if lawmakers actually know how to deal with technology companies. Just under half of Americans (48%) agree that elected officials and lawmakers understand how technology companies work, and slightly fewer (45%) agree that elected officials and lawmakers have been effective at dealing with big technology companies.

Perhaps surprisingly, younger Americans place more faith in the lawmakers’ abilities to handle big technology companies. Younger Americans are more likely to agree that elected officials and lawmakers understand how technology companies work. Fifty-four percent of those ages 18-34 and 63% of those ages 35-44 agreed that elected officials and lawmakers understand how technology companies work compared to 44% of those ages 45-54, 42% of those ages 55-64, and 35% of those 65+. Moreover, younger Americans (53% of those aged 18-34 and 59% of those aged 35-44) are more likely to agree that lawmakers and elected officials have been effective at dealing with big technology companies compared to older Americans (46% of those aged 45-54, 35% of those aged 55-64, and 30% of those aged 65+).

Despite the division on whether the government is capable of handling big technology companies, Americans still believe that the government should play a primary role in controlling some behavior from big technology firms. However, they place the primary responsibility with regulatory agencies. Fifty-five percent of Americans believe that either regulatory agencies (38%) or elected lawmakers (17%) should have the primary responsibility in determining if a company is too big. When asked who should have the primary responsibility to define what misinformation is, about a third (31%) of Americans say regulatory agencies should. Additionally, regulatory agencies tied with technology companies (both at 23%) for having the primary responsibility for preventing echo chambers.

However, regulation and potential investigation could still leave technology companies with questionable reputations. Only half (49%) of Americans say they would trust a technology company more if it allowed the government to investigate its business dealings.

Similar to their division on government capabilities to handle technology firms, only a little more than half (58%) of Americans agree breaking up big technology companies into smaller companies is justified. Nevertheless, Americans overwhelmingly expect technology companies to hold themselves to high ethical standards. Currently, only 2 in 5 Americans (43%) agree big technology companies always do the right thing by their customers, but 84% of Americans agree big technology companies should hold themselves to high ethical standards.

Ethical standards are even more important because they heavily influence how much customers trust a technology company. The majority of Americans would trust a technology company less if the company did not adequately protect customers’ information from a data breach (66%); the company was involved in a misdeed like harassment, discrimination, or a leadership scandal (65%); the company was not transparent about how customer data is utilized (63%); or the company did not pay taxes or tried to avoid paying taxes (62%).

Most importantly for technology brands, company ethics also affect whether people decide to use a tech company’s products and services at all. Three-quarters (76%) of Americans agree they would stop buying from or using a technology company’s services if it did not remove bad actors (e.g., scammers on retail sites, social media trolls) from its website. Public concern around bad actors could be especially important for social media brands since 1 in 5 Americans (22%) say that have stopped using a social media brand for ethical reasons (e.g., employee mistreatment, irresponsible data management, not eco-friendly, etc.).

Three-quarters of Americans (76%) also agree they would stop buying from or using a technology company if it did not treat its employees fairly. For technology brands frequently in the news for lobbying against their own employees or placing their workers in harm’s way, this should be a wake up call. Fifteen percent of Americans have stopped using a transportation service like Uber of Lyft for ethical reasons such as employee mistreatment. Thirteen percent of Americans have stopped using a search engine brand like Google for ethical reasons, and the same amount (13%) have stopped purchasing from multi-brand e-commerce sites like Amazon for ethical reasons.

Whether large technology companies will be broken up remains to be seen, and with more than half of Americans agreeing break ups would be justified, Americans may not mind as long as their favorite devices and websites are still available. Even if such companies are broken-up, what will determine their existence won’t be their scale but their ethical standards.

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on October 22-26, 2020, among 2,069 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. For more information on methodology, please contact Dami Rosanwo.

Download full data here.