Mr. Cicilline and his colleagues in the House’s top antitrust subcommittee are right that a small group of companies has substantial control over a massive part of American life. They’re also right that this control has come with costs, from the flourishing of online disinformation to a flood of security breaches. The government’s proper role in solving those problems, however, is far from certain — which is why it is worth having lawmakers spend time marshaling thought and evidence to make the arguments on both sides of the big-tech breakup debate.
Lawmakers will have to define the markets in which they believe any firm holds a monopoly. They will have to determine whether smaller companies really cannot compete, and they will have to determine whether an industry leader’s conduct is unfairly preventing that competition. But they will also have to do something harder: consider what antitrust policy is for in the first place. Is it solely to protect consumers from higher prices, or is it to protect consumers from harms far harder to quantify? Are there methods for protection besides antitrust enforcement? Is consumer protection the only goal, or is enforcement also a political tool designed to prevent too much power from resting in unelected hands?
Legislators’ answers will help them decide whether U.S. antitrust needs a systems update. But even an updated antitrust policy could not address all of the issues posed by this new world. A key case in point: Members of Congress do not need a blockbuster antitrust investigation to tell them it’s time for a privacy overhaul.
Senators on the Commerce Committee have been insisting for months that a bill is coming soon that would end the unfair and non-transparent exploitation of personal information. They should stop stalling now and prove that Congress not only thinks the Internet is broken but also has the wherewithal to start fixing it.