Big Tech CEOs—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—testified yesterday before the U.S. House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. I don’t expect much to result from this hearing. Such gatherings are largely theatrical, and yesterday’s was frequently derailed by partisan questions around liberal biases. And then there’s the fact that U.S. antitrust efforts are only a shadow of their former self, narrowly focused on consumer pricing rather than general competitive and societal impact and a far cry from the time of the Standard Oil Company, U.S. Steel Corporation, and AT&T breakups.
While antitrust can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to all tech-related problems, breaking up companies that have become more powerful than democratically elected governments is a discussion we should take very seriously right now. Most defenders of Big Tech raise the specter of China’s dominance in their arguments that American tech companies should avoid antitrust scrutiny, but the short-sightedness of this perspective is glaring: I’ll gloss over the “curious” fact that Big Tech is simultaneously asking to be protected from the U.S. government’s overreach and happily collaborating with the Chinese government on multiple topics (from “Windows 10 China Government Edition” to Apple removing apps from their app store). More important is the fact that what has made the U.S. incredibly fertile soil for Big Tech has been its innovative competitive environment, not a national champion-style industrial policy. Antitrust applied to AT&T, then IBM, and then Microsoft has made American tech stronger, not weaker.