The ubiquity of those companies and their products makes antitrust investigations into a cause for celebration. But those same inquiries may prove fruitless for the very reason that they feel so necessary: Difficult as it is pull ourselves away from Big Tech, would it really be feasible to pull Big Tech apart?
I recently acquired a laptop made by Microsoft — a company whose market capitalization reached a dizzying $1 trillion earlier this year, joining super-heavyweights like Amazon and Apple. (Google, another prime target of the antitrust investigation, has yet to breach the trillion-dollar mark.) In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft was famously the target of a grinding antitrust suit, premised largely on its inclusion of its Internet Explorer browser in the Windows operating system. Microsoft lost the suit, but it later settled with the government and continued its forward march to market dominance. In retrospect, the whole affair can seem almost laughable — a foolhardy attempt to stem the monopolistic rise of a new corporate giant.
When I bought a Microsoft laptop last month, I found it difficult (though not impossible) to change its default browser to something other than Microsoft’s Edge. Even after I set my preference to Firefox, the operating system still regularly prompts me to use Edge, and some links open in Microsoft’s browser. Microsoft not only survived its antitrust suit but also its software and services are more integrated into its operating system than ever before.
The point is less to dwell on the picayune details of what was once known as the “browser wars” than to show how hard it is to escape the hold these companies’ ecosystems have on our lives. My phone is made by Google, whose global surveillance apparatus instills jealousy in the hearts of intelligence professionals everywhere and whose services, from Maps to Gmail to Search, have become integral parts of daily life. The chat apps I use are mostly owned by Facebook, which has been furiously working to integrate the back-end systems of WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, possibly in an effort to complicate breaking up the parent company. I shop on Amazon, whose massive portfolio extends from a global e-commerce powerhouse to groceries, digital video, logistics, health care and even a planned network of thousands of satellites. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The rise of Big Tech has reaped spectacular riches for a select group — and arguably made our lives more efficient and convenient — but it has also corralled us into an economy dominated by a handful of corporations that, thanks to a fortuitous series of loopholes, pay almost no taxes in the United States. What was once a group of upstart incumbents has matured into an ossified industry controlled by a few major players. While the tech industry has long celebrated the form of creative destruction known as disruption, it seems unlikely that any start-up will be able to unseat, much less compete against, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, or Microsoft. For these reasons, we should celebrate a rigorous government effort to chart how these companies came to dominate the technology industry.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of the potential efficacy of the antitrust probes. For one thing, they take a long time and can lead to less than satisfying results. Years of lean budgets, poor hiring, and criticism from both major parties have helped create an impression of the government as a feckless regulator. But worrying about outcomes is not a reason to abandon a worthwhile process. Corporate power isn’t curbed with simply a wish or a song — or an op-ed, for that matter. It is done, on the government side, through the hard, deliberative work of investigating, issuing subpoenas, calling hearings and digging deep into the operations of these companies.
Still, we should be mindful of past examples, Microsoft included. After a 10-year battle with the government, in 1984, AT&T agreed to divest from and break up the“Baby Bells,” regional carriers that underwrote much of the company’s telecommunications dominance. But in the following decades, the Baby Bells, like some “Terminator” villain, reconstituted themselves, eventually reforming as — yep — AT&T. (A similar phenomenon took place after the breakup, more than 100 years ago, of Standard Oil.)
Today, AT&T is once again one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world. It is also a reminder of one of the major oversights of the recently announced DOJ/FTC investigation: the refusal to look at the big telecoms, which enjoy regional monopolies and, through various acquisitions like Verizon’s takeover of Yahoo, are increasingly controlling both how we connect to the Internet and what we see. If Silicon Valley is to be first under the microscope, the telecoms should be next.
We can expect the tech giants to throw everything they have at these investigations — fleets of lawyers, packs of lobbyists, oodles of political donations and any amount of wheedling and cajoling. They will plead innocence or argue for the value of self-regulation, a mythical concept with no foundation in law or governance. They will proclaim their belief in innovation and competition. They will promise — despite all evidence to the contrary — that they are mature stewards of our personal data. Tech leaders, like Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, will tout the virtues of privacy — a bizarre about-face for someone who once implied that privacy was “no longer a social norm” and whose company’s tremendous profits are generated by industrial-scale surveillance of its users.
We should believe none of it. These investigations are well past due. And while we may be dubious of their efficacy — breaking up a trillion-dollar conglomerate is no small matter — that is no reason not to press forward. Our politicians may inspire little hope that they work for the public good, rather than to perpetuate their own cushy positions of authority. But here they’ve landed on something important. For too long, the tech giants have been allowed to steamroll their way over legacy industries, to insinuate themselves into more and more of daily life, often without our consent. It’s time to do something about it. An antitrust probe is a worthy starting point.