Warren Pieces: Does the Presidential Candidate’s Plan to Break Up Big Tech Go Far Enough?

Issue 245

Maia Hibbett Apr 1, 2019

If you think you don’t use Apple, Google, Facebook, or Amazon, either you’re not on the internet or you’re probably wrong. If you have a smartphone, it most likely runs on an iOS or Android system — Apple or Google. Maybe you deleted Facebook, but if you post on Instagram or message on WhatsApp, you use a Facebook service. Even without a Prime order or a Washington Post subscription, you probably visit websites run through Amazon Web Services, which hosts servers from Airbnb to the CDC, Netflix to the New York Public Library.

Warren’s proposal is aggressive. Divorcing platforms from content would shake up the web.

With this level of integration, most of us have no choice but to patronize a few big businesses. Not many lawmakers seem to grasp that problem like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) does. To date, Warren is the only presidential candidate with a detailed policy proposal to curb Big Tech’s dominance. The characteristically vague Beto O’Rourke prefers the idea of “regulating” over “having five more Facebooks.” Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) suggested “some kind of a tax,” though she doesn’t have a plan for it yet. But while it stands more or less alone, we shouldn’t regard Warren’s policy recommendations as our only option, nor should we constrain debate about tech regulation to the 2020 arena.

Warren calls for breaking up “the new tech monopolies” by designating the largest tech companies (those worth over $25 billion) “Platform Utilities,” which would have to choose between hosting platforms and providing content. Amazon could no longer sell its own products and Google Search would have to recommend outside web services. The proposal would also unravel the largest recent tech mergers, so Facebook would relinquish Instagram and WhatsApp. Anyone can read the plan; it’s written in lay terms and available on Medium.

Warren unveiled her proposal on the morning of March 8 and that night she rallied in Queens, not far from where Amazon has sought to place its HQ2 before it was derailed by public opposition. Former New York Attorney General candidate Zephyr Teachout greeted the news with tweets of approval: “Warren is coming out swinging at the right targets!” The next day, Warren discussed the plan with Time’s Anand Giridharadas at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. “So yesterday you made a pretty big announcement about tech,” Giridharadas said. “Then, like the gangster you are, you flew down to a tech conference.”

It seems funny to call the slight, somewhat dorky Warren a “gangster,” but Giridharadas has a point. Her proposal is aggressive. Divorcing platforms from content would shake up the web, though Warren invites questions when she notes that “smaller companies” with revenues between $90 million and $25 billion “would not be required to structurally separate from any participant on the platform.” Why this massive middle ground? And will platforms really separate when companies get too big?

Warren describes herself as ‘capitalist to the bone.’

From an anti-monopoly standpoint, Warren’s plan seems warranted, even as the government has become increasingly lax about enforcing antitrust laws in recent decades. Most antitrust action in U.S. history took place during the early 20th Century, when the administrations of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft launched over 100 Sherman Antitrust Act suits, most notably breaking up the Standard Oil Company in 1911 into 34 separate companies, including the oil giants Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Amoco and Conoco. The Depression-era banking collapse ushered in the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which kept commercial and investment banking separate until its repeal in 1998. Now, Congressmember David Cicilline (D-RI) wants to levy a version of the law against Big Tech.

Calling Warren’s proposal “smart and practical,” Open Markets Institute fellow Matthew Stoller linked the two ideas. “Time to begin hearings on @davidcicilline’s big tech Glass-Steagall idea to flesh [Warren’s plan] out,” he tweeted.

While enforcing anti-monopoly laws would be helpful, is it sufficient? Looking back on history, successful prosecution of antitrust laws has ultimately had limited impact. A 2001 antitrust suit put a dent in Microsoft, yet Bill Gates recently saw his net worth soar over $100 billion. The Standard Oil breakup created a group of fabulously wealthy energy corporations that have used their power to thwart serious action on climate change. In 1999, the two largest offshoots of Standard Oil, Exxon and Mobil, were permitted to reunite.

Progressive Era antitrust warriors had the free market in mind, and Warren likewise describes herself as a “capitalist to the bone” whose antitrust plan is intended “to make sure that the next generation of great American tech companies can flourish.”

But what if we don’t need a next generation of great American tech companies? Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform (2014) among other works, questions the utopian promise of the internet. “I’m struck by the fact that we use these civic-minded metaphors, calling Google Books a ‘library’ or Twitter a ‘town square’… but real public options are off the table,” she told Harper’s Magazine. “We hand the digital commons over to private corporations at our peril.”

Political analyst Richard Eskow has similarly argued that the largest tech companies should be publicly-owned utilities because “these corporations were not created in garages or by inventive entrepreneurs. The core technology behind them is the internet, a publicly-funded platform for which they pay no users’ fee.” The services they provide, Eskow adds, have become necessities, the sort of thing people should be able to access as basic resources, without trading in their monetized data.

In a future under President Warren, using federal regulators to break up Big Tech sounds promising. But what if the following chief executive doesn’t share her priorities? If we want not just to rein in Big Tech’s worst abuses, but decisively break their power, we should think radically — or, to take a page from the tech world’s book, innovate.

Illustration by Esteban Jimenez.

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