Embattled tech firms face a new challenge
There’s no denying that the tech giants are having a hard time of it at the moment. There have been the scandals that we’re all so familiar with: Facebook is still dealing with the fall-out from the Cambridge Analytica affair as well as accusations that it allows interference in national elections, while earlier this year Google once again had to face the wrath of angry advertisers whose ads had been run alongside inappropriate content on YouTube. They’re also facing numerous legal challenges from national and EU lawmakers in Europe over issues such as privacy, fake news, tax and competition – and of course there is GDPR to contend with.
Into this rather bleak landscape strode Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic candidate for the US presidential election in 2020. In a blog post Warren laid out a plan to break up the tech giants, namely Amazon, Facebook and Google, by forcing them to divest some of their biggest acquisitions and money-spinners.
Why is Warren proposing such radical antitrust measures?
So what are the reasons that Warren gives? There are two key ones: in her view, the big tech companies damage small businesses and innovation which stifle healthy competition. In effect, she believes that Facebook, Google and Amazon in particular have too much power over the economy, society and democracy. Facebook scored an own goal by promptly removing her ads around this issue from the platform. It later restored them, but they had neatly illustrated Warren’s point for her (!).
What would these antitrust regulations mean?
The implications of Warren’s proposals are huge. She would pass legislation designating platforms with more than $25bn in revenue as ‘platform utilities’, which would be banned from owning both the platform and the participants at the same time. This would mean that, for example, Google would need to spin off Search, with Amazon doing the same with Marketplace. Perhaps even more dramatically, Warren also claimed that she would appoint regulators to reverse mergers that had already been completed – including Facebook’s purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp, and Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. This would lead to a world where Facebook would be competing with Instagram and Amazon’s power over sellers – and buyers – would be curbed significantly.
Warren wants to implement these measures to “restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last”. She points to the antitrust case involving Microsoft in the 1990s which forced the ‘original’ tech giant to behave with increased restraint into the new millennium and, argues Warren, paved the way for the growth of the very giants she now wants to shrink.
Are there alternative ways to promote competition?
Warren is not alone in wanting to address the huge power held by the tech giants, particularly as the public feels increasingly uncomfortable about the amount of power they wield, but she is the first to have crossed the threshold to an antitrust solution. Of course, the chances are that Warren will not be the next President of the United States (she’s up against many other Democratic candidates, not to mention the incumbent) and, even if she is, many believe that her measures will be extremely difficult to implement. However, what is undeniable is that the tech firms must evaluate how they operate in order to regain trust from users and from governments. A middle ground could be, as suggested by the Report of the Digital Competition Expert Panel, which was commissioned by the British Government and led by Barack Obama’s economic adviser Jason Furman. The report recommends a new regulator to force firms to ‘rewire’ themselves so that users have more control of their data and can switch between providers; it also suggests modernising antitrust rules.
As ever, Google, Facebook and Amazon have an uphill struggle on their hands, and they must examine their business models hard if they are to continue their success and deflect the scrutiny of governments across the world.