For a couple of weeks a while back, there was a brief bubble of media personalities pressing the case for “breaking up” Big Tech. In a current events cycle dominated by news of Russian hacking, institutions under siege, “fake news” and the like, the GAFA companies’ ascent to global dominance is now seen by some as a precursor to an episode of Black Mirror, rather than the sunny tech-optimistic future we all enjoyed in the mid-aughts.
But when you get into the details of what such a “breakup” might actually entail, things get murky very quickly. What would breaking up Google or Facebook actually look like? Amazon is not AT&T; Google is not Standard Oil. A breakup based on, say, geography is nonsensical on face for an internet company. Moreover, these consumer-facing companies are dominant mostly on the basis of consumer choice, not simply lock-in, like a Microsoft Windows/Internet Explorer sort of scenario. (No one uses Google Maps because Apple Maps just isn’t accessible. Google’s product is just demonstrably superior.) In any case, public support for breaking up Big Tech isn’t very high anyway.
Instead, a more practical, and probably effective, approach to protecting consumers, citizens, markets, our political system and society at large would be through plain, old, boring regulatory action, both through existing statutes and feasible new ones. Here are four possible ways to do that.