Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Capitol Hill underscored that threats to break up Big Tech are not just coming from Democratic candidates running for president, but Congress. Facebook has been fighting back against the talk of regulation and antitrust action, and rightly so, because some of the motivation behind the push to break up companies is not principled but political. Big does not mean bad, and Americans shouldn’t oppose successful companies based solely on anti-capitalist rhetoric or political motives.
House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters set the tone for Wednesday’s hearing, stating, “Perhaps you believe that you’re above the law, and it appears that you are aggressively increasing the size of your company, and are willing to step over anyone, including your competitors, women, people of color, you own users, and even our democracy to get what you want. … In fact, you have opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up.”
What a stark contrast to how Big Tech was treated in the past. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon were once the left’s darlings — successful businesses led by progressive founders with strong social justice values.
Now, they are considered our generation’s robber barons for driving income inequality, monetizing massive amounts of our private data, surveilling us like big brother, and not bludgeoning conservative perspectives hard enough on their platforms. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been the most vocal proponent of breaking up Big Tech, but there were no defenders of Big Tech on the Democratic debate stage last week.
Big Tech is accused of breaking antitrust law, but the fact that these companies are large does not mean they did or are doing something sinister to achieve their size and influence. There must be evidence that they are trying to squash competition in their space.
Facebook is under antitrust investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp. Fifty states and territories have banded together to investigate Google for dominating internet search and advertising. The Department of Justice’s antitrust division is probing whether major platforms have acted in harmful ways to consumers, stifled innovation or slowed competition to achieve their impressive market power. Perhaps after these probes we will have an answer to the antitrust question, but there are clues that the tech companies will not be found guilty of anything more than being successful and delivering positive benefits to consumers.
Consumers actually benefit from better products and greater efficiencies when companies acquire other companies for their products and services. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp means that users will eventually be able to communicate with contacts on the platform and on their phone in one place. According to data website Statista, Google provides about 95 percent of mobile searches and receives the highest consumer rankings of all search engines. Google has innovated to deliver the best quality results. Bing and Yahoo! come in second and third highest providing about 3 percent of mobile searches. That mobile users choose to open Google instead of Bing or Yahoo! is a testament to Google delivering good service rather than a lack of options.
Big Tech has also spawned millions of new enterprises, any of which could one day become a competitor. Large platforms have served as incubators, capital sources, and marketplaces from smaller enterprises. As Harvard Business Review noted, “Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android have fueled a global bonanza in app development. Millions of apps have proliferated the world.”
The value consumers place on digital goods and services created by Big Tech demonstrates just how much Americans appreciate Big Tech. MIT researchers found that users of digital goods would have to be paid $17,500 to forgo search engines, $8,400 to forgo email access, and $3,600 to give up digital maps for a year.
Part of the value in these products is that users do not have to pay for them. They are often free services. In exchange for access to our private data and consumer behavior online, we enjoy customization, targeted advertising, and improved user experiences.
The lack of price poses a challenge to the antitrust argument which rests on anticompetitive behaviors such as price-gouging. When there’s no price to manipulate, but individuals freely entering into agreements to receive goods at no cost, then it’s hard to claim traditional antitrust behavior at work.
This campaign to unite Americans behind taking down Big Tech companies is an uphill battle because these companies create a tremendous amount of value to the daily lives of Americans that won’t easily be abandoned.
This doesn’t mean that there is no reason for policymakers and the public to want to pay attention to what these powerful Big Tech companies do. It’s not just Democrats who are frustrated with Big Tech; conservatives are concerned about censorship and other practices used to suppress their views. However, there is a big difference between those concerns and the leap to use government’s heavy hand to break up companies or remake an industry. People may be wary of Big Tech, but empowering big government is what’s really scary.
Don’t be fooled though. Some of this motivation is payback for the rise and influence of President Trump and conservatism. For example, Warren chided Zuckerberg for his platform’s role to help “elect Donald Trump once,” and its ability to do it again in 2020. If using social media for political gain is part of her motivation for attacking Facebook and that of others, then everyone should view such campaigns to break up Big Tech with much skepticism.