Fear of retaliation could prevent smaller companies from speaking out against Big Tech as Washington, D.C., ramps up its scrutiny of competition and power in Silicon Valley.

Many smaller-tech companies and app developers have a classic “frenemy” relationship with the large-tech platforms — often competing with their services while at the same time relying on the giants to reach consumers’ eyeballs. That reliance could make it particularly difficult for some companies to go public with competition concerns against tech giants like Google.

“Google can make or break any company in the digital-media sector,” said Jason Kint, the chief executive of the online publishing group Digital Content Next. “They are the No. 1 source of distribution and monetization more than any company on the web. What benefit is there in crossing them?”

The relationship-driven business culture in Silicon Valley could also make it harder for companies to voice competition concerns, one venture capitalist said.

“At the end of the day, Silicon Valley is a very small community, particularly at the top,” said Robert Ackerman, the managing director and founder of the venture capital firm AllegisCyber Capital. “People go out of their way to avoid certain types of conflict in fear of blowback and ending up on a pseudo enemies list.”

That could create a challenge for House lawmakers eager to investigate whether Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google are using their size and dominance to unfairly hamper emerging competitors. The top lawmaker leading the House investigation into competition in the tech industry says he’s already running into this issue.

This fear of backlash doesn’t just apply to small companies, Kint said. He notes that Google, for example, is a major funder of media trade groups, think tanks and academics. “It’s dangerous to bite the hand that feeds you.”

Some venture capitalists also said the companies’ silence could instead reflect a general skepticism of working with lawmakers. “If anything, people worry more about government actions causing more harm than good,” said Venky Ganesan, a partner at Menlo Ventures.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said he’s not surprised by the antitrust scrutiny here at home after the company has gone through recent investigations in Europe, but there are advantage for having large players such as long-term investments in new technologies.


Cat Zakrzewski writes for the Washington Post.