Is this the end for Big Tech? Politicians ramp up plans to harness tech monopolies in a bid to maintain a fair, competitive market
Senator Elizabeth Warren hopes to turn Big Tech on its head with a proposal to split up the major players. “Twenty-five years ago, Facebook, Google and Amazon didn’t exist,” Warren wrote in an article for Medium on March 8, 2019. “Now they are among the most valuable and well-known companies in the world. It’s a great story— but also one that highlights why the government must break up monopolies and promote competitive markets.”
The timely announcement of Warren’s proposal became a hot topic at South by Southwest Interactive earlier this month where politicians, tech entrepreneurs and journalists weighed in on the prospects of her plan. Roger McNamee, founder of tech and media company Elevation Partners and also an early mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, said Warren’s plan was “brilliant” and expressed his support on stage.
But not everyone was convinced. “I think it’s going to take a more nuanced proposal,” said Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom during his SXSW keynote. “My fear is that a proposal to break up all tech is playing on everyone’s current feeling of anti-tech rather than doing what politicians should do, which is address real problems and give real solutions.”
Media network the Verge attempted to think through what a more nuanced proposal would look like, exploring the practical considerations required to break up tech giants during a panel discussion at SXSW. “How would you break up Google?” asked Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of the Verge. The conversation ultimately ended with a comparison to AT&T: in 1982, US regulators disbanded the company to break up its monopoly and allow room for competition, but lack of economic regulation ultimately allowed AT&T to recentralize. “That’s the natural tendency of these companies,” says Patel, “to not compete. They don’t want to.”
Despite skepticism of Warren’s radical approach, the general consensus was that clear action needs to be taken swiftly to control the fast-growing tech giants. During her session at SXSW, Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner of Competition, discussed the responsibilities large tech companies should be taking and the need for government to protect active and free competition. “We’re trying to make the marketplace work and be fair and competitive,” said Vestager, “but with tools that are not as far-reaching as breaking up the companies.” Speaking on behalf of her upcoming plans for the European Union, Vestager reflects on how her team of regulators have worked toward more accountability and why “breaking up Big Tech” is the last resort.
“We’re dealing with private property,” said Vestager. “Businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation. To break up a company, to break up private property, would be very far-reaching. And you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for the consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with sort of more mainstream tools.”
If the solution to control these tech goliaths is not by breaking them up, then what is the viable solution? The answer from the politicians speaking at SXSW seemed to point towards a changing tax system. Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Margrethe Vestager all agree that the current system is not sustainable. “If you’re big, you also have a special responsibility,” says Vestager, “and that’s a responsibility not to do things that will make it impossible for others to compete against you.”
Main image of Elizabeth Warren at SXSW by Amy E. Price/Getty Images.