2021 Online Commentary finalist

Geoffrey A. Fowler

About the Project

“The unprecedented power of Silicon Valley is one of the biggest stories of our era. But one critical element is too often missing from the discussion: you.

Geoffrey A. Fowler’s commentary makes tech monopolies, antitrust and content moderation remarkably personal topics. He does that by fearlessly re-examining the tech we all use — from Google search to the iPhone — to reveal the levers of power we’ve lost sight of. “The debate that’s happening in courts and Congress about Big Tech’s power is also playing out in the palm of our hands,” he wrote.

For decades, lawmakers have focused on one main way to measure the harm caused by monopolies: Are prices going up? Fowler’s work broadens our understanding to include the impact monopolies have on us as citizens who deserve high-quality products, privacy and fair access to information.

Fowler uses Web-native tools to gather evidence and make convincing arguments. When the federal government filed a historic antitrust lawsuit against Google, he asked: How does a Google monopoly harm you? To answer, Fowler invited audiences to conduct a series of search queries along with him, narrating the results like an autopsy in text, video and annotated images. To prove Google’s search result pages have grown less helpful over time, he turned to the Web’s own library — the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine — for primary evidence. It’s hard to miss the difference between Google results today vs. 2010.

To show how tech controls free speech, Fowler and graphics colleague Chris Alcantara made a visual guide to how the Web actually works. Taking viewers through the layers of the “stack” that runs the Internet, they show censorship power goes far beyond Facebook and Twitter — and how ideas about using it have shifted over the years.

On the day that the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google testified in Congress, Fowler helped readers quickly sort out what is and isn’t true — “separating out what we love to do with our smartphone or smart speaker from the behavior of the company that makes it.”

A two-way online conversation with readers is integral to how Fowler created this body of work. Through his Help Desk forum, included in every column, he hears from readers about their frustrations. After a reader tip about e-books mysteriously missing from public library digital collections, he investigated how Amazon was using its publishing monopoly to block sales to these institutions. (A few weeks after the column, the state of Maryland banned the practice.)

When Fowler penned an iPhone owner’s Bill of Rights — a critique of Apple’s monopolistic control over the iPhone — he asked readers to co-sign or add their own demands, and he heard from thousands.

Fowler’s work reinvents the idea of what a “tech column” should be in an era where audiences need a truly independent advocate.”