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Special Edition Magazine, Spring 2020: Beyond the Techlash

Resurrect Antitrust

The leading technology companies in the United States, like their counterparts in the late nineteenth century, have amassed a dangerous amount of economic, political, and social power, owing to their sheer size and market dominance. And today, too, the right approach is to break up these behemoths and restore a competitive environment.

BERKELEY – America’s Gilded Age in the late nineteenth century began with a raft of innovations – railroads, steel production, oil extraction – but culminated in mammoth trusts owned by “robber barons” who used their wealth and power to drive out competitors, and then to corrupt American politics.

We are now in a second Gilded Age – ushered in by semiconductors, software, and the Internet – and a handful of technology giants are the new robber barons. Facebook and Google now dominate the online advertising market, while the advertising revenue going to newspapers, network television, and other newsgathering agencies continues to decline.

Google also hosts two-thirds of all Internet searches in the United States, and is so dominant that “to google” has long since become a commonly used verb. In 2006, Google acquired the world’s largest video-hosting site, YouTube. And Facebook, for its part, has acquired more than 70 companies over roughly 15 years, including potential competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp.

Amazon, meanwhile, has become the first stop for one-third of all US consumers seeking to buy anything, including more than half of new books. Amazon’s scale translates into bargains for consumers, but it undermines supplier industries, including author royalties and publisher earnings.

This consolidation at the leading edge of the US economy has created three big problems. The first concerns economic power. Here, the issue is not the classic one of consumer prices being higher than they’d be under competitive conditions; it is that Big Tech is inhibiting innovation. The incumbents’ size, must-use platforms (owing to network effects), wall-to-wall patents and copyrights, and fleets of lawyers to litigate potential rivals into submission have allowed them to create formidable barriers to new entrants.

To be sure, large platforms like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have enabled creators to showcase and introduce new apps, songs, books, videos, and other content. But because of these platforms’ overwhelming bargaining power, they can take a large share of the profits. Partly as a result, the rate at which new job-creating businesses are formed in the US has fallen by half since 2004.

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The second problem concerns political influence: massive concentrations of economic power tend to generate political clout that is easily abused. Because of its increasing size, the technology sector provides significant campaign contributions and maintains platoons of lobbyists and lawyers in Washington, DC. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, for example, is the one of the biggest lobbyists in the city.

All this power gets results: tax loopholes, subsidies, regulatory exemptions, and other forms of government largesse that is unavailable to smaller firms. Hence, in 2018, Amazon paid no federal taxes, even as it held an auction to extort billions of dollars from states and cities eager to host its second headquarters. The company has also forced Seattle, its main headquarters, to scrap a plan to tax big corporations. That revenue would have been used to pay for homeless shelters for a growing population that can’t afford sky-high rents caused, in part, by Amazon.

Big Tech’s political power also buys impunity. Facebook executives withheld evidence of malign Russian activity on their platform far longer than previously disclosed, but suffered no consequences. Perhaps more troubling, they employed a political opposition-research firm to discredit their critics. How long will it be before Facebook uses its own data and platform against its opponents and competitors?

Google, too, has used its power to fend off criticism. It has quietly funded hundreds of university professors to write research papers justifying its market dominance, and it has threatened to cut funding to nonprofit think tanks that have criticized its economic and political power.

The third problem concerns social power: the control over the flows of communications on which people rely to understand the world. The most obvious example is the news itself. By refusing to take responsibility for the accuracy of what appears on their platforms, the Big Tech firms are actively enabling demagogues, hate-mongers, and con artists to exert unprecedented influence over society – perverting political discourse, encouraging bigotry, and even endangering children.

The tech companies’ defense is that they are not publishers, but merely the proprietors of platforms and algorithms. But this claim is belied by their platforms’ powerful network effects. The more people participate, the more necessary the platform becomes for everyone else. If people want to know what’s happening in the world, they increasingly have little choice but to engage with YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.

Another aspect of Big Tech’s social power is its increasing capacity to pool and analyze data about all aspects of our lives, choices, and movements. This not only undermines our privacy; it challenges our very autonomy. Targeted advertising doesn’t merely respond to consumer needs and wants. It shapes our understanding of ourselves, our communities, and of the world.

These three forms of power – economic, political, and social – are rooted in Big Tech’s increasing dominance over markets, information, and communications. And that dominance is a function of these companies’ size and scope.

America responded to abuses of corporate power in the Gilded Age with antitrust laws that allowed the government to break up concentrated economic power. It is time to use antitrust again. Where breaking up Big Tech companies is impractical, those firms should at least be required to make their proprietary technology and data publicly available, and to share their platforms with smaller competitors.

Such measures would impose few costs on the economy, given that these giants rely on scale rather than innovation. Moreover, the benefits of reducing Big Tech’s concentrated power would be significant. More competition would reduce the major platforms’ market leverage and political clout. It would also give people more choice about how to receive reliable information, and greater control over which aspects of their personal lives they share.

In the second Gilded Age, as in the first, giant firms at the center of the US economy are distorting its market and its politics. Just as the problem is the same, so is the solution.

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