Genevieve Lakier on Which Antimonopoly Tools Matter

The Limits of Antimonopoly Law as a Solution to the Problems of the Platform Public Sphere

The idea of breaking up big tech impresses with its audaciousness. The last time the federal government broke up a successful commercial business was in 1982 when the government entered into a consent decree with AT&T that resulted in the creation of the “Baby Bells.” Almost 40 years later, the episode is still remembered as a high—or low—point for government intervention into the economy, depending on one’s perspective. Were the federal government to do what Senator Elizabeth Warren, among other voices on the left, argue that it should—namely, break up the large internet companies, like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, that today provide the platforms for a tremendous range of economic, social, and political activity in the United States—it would exercise a kind of government power that has very rarely been used in this country. Moreover, the result would undoubtedly represent a significant change in the economic relationships that govern important segments of the U.S. economy. That is, indeed, the goal.

One cannot therefore fault those who propose breaking up big tech for a lack of ambition. If anything, the opposite is true: The proposal is so ambitious that it may be difficult for many to take seriously. This is not to say that one should not take it seriously. As the last few decades have clearly demonstrated, ideas can go from “off the wall” to “on the wall” very quickly, and not only when it comes to constitutional argument. Nevertheless, there is no question that achieving the breakup of big tech will be a difficult task to accomplish, particularly given the significant amounts of money pouring into Washington from the internet companies that are the targets of Warren as well as a host of other thinkers.

It is also the case, however, that merely breaking up big tech—however bold, however significant in its economic repercussions—is very unlikely to solve many of the problems that critics associate with the emergence of what we might call the “platform public sphere.” This is because many of those problems—for example, the problem of what Shoshanna Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism,” the problem of political disinformation, or the problems caused by often-anonymous threatening and harassing speech online—are not ultimately the consequence of economic concentration. And yet it is economic concentration—and for the most part, only economic concentration—that the antitrust tool of divestiture is designed to combat.

Read more at Knight First Amendment Institute