Randy Picker on the House’s Big Tech Hearing

The House’s Big Tech Hearing: Break Ups Large and Small?

Last week’s epic House hearing on online platforms has come and gone. This was actually the sixth hearing in the House investigation into Big Tech, but with Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, and Mark Zuckerberg as the star witnesses, this was the first one that was guaranteed to make front-page news.

Operating at Scale

The written statements by the four tech CEOs raised an interesting conceptual question: who do we want to operate at scale, and should the government have a monopoly over scale? Small firms are naturally limited in what they can accomplish, but firms like the tech platforms are able to operate at scales often associated with governments. Indeed, Facebook, with more than 2.6 billion monthly users, operates at nearly the combined scale of the Chinese and Indian governments. The question of the scale of tech platforms’ operations isn’t just an antitrust question, but the answer to this question may matter for how we think about possible breakups of major tech platforms. 

Zuckerberg’s statement addressed scale directly, as he emphasized Facebook’s R&D spending ($10 billion a year), while Pichai put Alphabet’s R&D spending at $90 billion over five years. Bezos’s statement was very clear on what Amazon could do because of its size: “Our scale allows us to make meaningful impact on social issues.” These types of large undertakings are often the exclusive province of governments, but the large tech platforms are capable of operating at an enormous scale, a capability that would be reduced if these firms were broken up.  

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