Don’t Break Up Big Tech

It’s debatable whether antitrust enforcement has ever been particularly effective. Even a charitable reading of its legacy suggests that the first effect of disrupting Big Tech might be to enrich the oligopoly’s shareholders, which is certainly not what advocates would want. In fact, as I argued in that earlier WIRED column, industrial conglomerates often spin off businesses strategically. For instance, United Technologies is about to cut loose its multibillion-dollar divisions Otis Elevators and Carrier (one of the world’s largest HVAC companies) as a means of unlocking shareholder value. One wonders why Silicon Valley executives haven’t gone down this path; perhaps the mantras of integration and a hubristic belief that they will never actually be forced to break up has shut down consideration of those strategies.

Would a forced breakup at least be effective at dispersing power? Let’s say that Facebook were strong-armed into disassembling itself. Its logical components would be legacy Facebook (individual pages), Facebook for business, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus. You might be able to slice it even thinner, but assume Facebook would become five companies. Facebook currently has a market capitalization of just over $600 billion. That total market cap wouldn’t be divided equally among the five new companies; WhatsApp might struggle given its lack of discernible income, while Instagram might soar. It’s likely, however, that the resulting businesses would have a combined valuation greater than $600 billion, assuming it follows past patterns and that the tech industry remains robust.

Now imagine each of the Big Tech giants gets disassembled in this way. We might end up with a landscape of 30 companies instead of half a dozen. A quintupling of industry players would, by definition, create a more competitive field. But competition in the antitrust framework, stretching back to the original Sherman Anti-Trust Bill in 1890 and then subsequent legislation such as the Clayton Bill in 1914, is not a virtue or need in and of itself. It is the means to a set of ends—namely, “economic liberty,” unfettered trade, lower prices, and better services for consumers. By itself, competition does not guarantee anything.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to see how going from six companies to 30 would give consumers any more choice of services or more control over their data, or how it would help to nurture small businesses and lower costs to consumers and society. Perhaps there would be openings for companies with different business models, ones that brand themselves as valuing privacy and empowering individual ownership of data. This can’t be ruled out, but the nature of data selling and data mining is so embedded in the current models of most IT companies that it is very hard to see how such businesses could thrive unless they charged more to consumers than consumers have so far been willing to pay. In the meantime, the 30 new megacompanies would still have immense competitive advantages over smaller startups.

Would the market frictions and disruptions caused by a breakup be worth the possibility that such privacy-focused companies might succeed? Would cracking the current megacompanies into a set of slightly smaller ones effectively balance consumer needs and economic liberty? You may need to break eggs to make an omelet, but breaking eggs alone doesn’t make one.

Warren has also floated a plan to limit the number and scale of acquisitions that Big Tech companies can make in any given year. There is now an entire venture capital ecosystem that funds and incubates companies not so they can go public but so they can be acquired by Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, or Microsoft (as well as Oracle, Salesforce, Intel, and a handful of others). These acquisitions are arguably part of the innovation structure, with Big Tech providing the same exit capital as public markets, but with less regulatory hassle. Limiting acquisitions, as Warren suggests, could have the unintended consequence of depressing spending on innovation rather than unlocking it, and making it harder for smaller companies to raise money. More problematic is how the cap would be determined, or enforced fairly and consistently. If Facebook can only make X acquisitions per year at Y price, then why shouldn’t ancillary companies like Visa be subject to the same rules? Visa may be seen as a financial services company, but it is really in tech, having announced the acquisition, just last week, of financial tech company Plaid for $5 billion.

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The idea that breaking up Big Tech would strengthen democracy simply by decreasing the immense power of a few companies may be just as appealing, but it’s false too. There is no past evidence that large, dominant companies imperil democracy; AT&T and IBM had de facto monopolies in the 1960s and 1970s over telephony and computers when democracy in the United States was becoming ever more inclusive. Perhaps it’s not size per se but, rather, the nature of today’s companies—not the “big,” just the “tech”—that is at the heart of such problems.



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