The Big Tech breakup: Could it happen?

Art by Annie Gugliotta

"Don't be evil", they said. Back in 2000, that was the internal motto of a scrappy little tech startup called Google. Twenty years later, and a trillion dollars higher in market cap, the company, along with fellow tech giants Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, is squarely in the crosshairs of US lawmakers who say their business models have gone to the dark side.


The latest challenge — a 450-page report released Tuesday by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives — says the four biggest US tech giants have abused their market power to undercut rivals and stifle competition, putting their users' economic and political freedoms at risk. The companies themselves say their businesses have created untold numbers of new jobs, markets, and innovations that previously did not exist.

Qualms about big tech firms' market power aren't new. The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are already conducting antitrust probes of all four companies, but the report lays out the case in detail. It also makes a series of recommendations for lawmakers on how to update competition laws and strengthen oversight of tech firms. Some of those calls go as far as to explore breaking up the companies.

Could the Beltway really take a tougher line on Silicon Valley? Democrats and Republicans (who rarely see eye to eye on anything these days) generally agree that Big Tech needs to be reined in, although they have often disagreed about why and how. Two Republican members of the House subcommittee that released the new report put out their own dissenting documents on the same day. One faulted the main report for failing to address what Republicans believe is an anti-conservative bias on social media. The other, more substantively, agreed with the main report's call to update antitrust laws, but rejected breaking up firms.

The lack of a durable bipartisan consensus means the November election will be critical. If the Democrats take control of the Senate, they'd be in a more commanding position to advance some of the report's proposals. The main players to watch would likely be senators Elizabeth Warren, who has been outspoken in her calls to break up big tech, and Amy Klobuchar, a major digital privacy and antitrust advocate who would likely lead the Senate antitrust subcommittee.

Still, Silicon valley has immense lobbying power to fight tougher regulations, and it's not clear that a centrist like Chuck Schumer, who would likely take the helm of a Democrat-controlled Senate, would relish a big fight on this issue any time soon.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has, like his opponent Donald Trump, called for reform of the so-called "Section 230" protections that shield social media firms from liability for content posted on their sites. But although he's criticized Big Tech's market dominance, he'd have a lot on his plate if he won — tech regulation would probably take a back seat to the pandemic, economy, foreign policy, and climate change.

Is there a US-China angle here? Well it's tech, so of course there is. The US and China are moving into an increasingly zero-sum rivalry over technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence, in which the tech giants are major players. If this turns into a 21st-century "tech Cold War" in which firms on either side of the Pacific are the main combatants, US companies will be facing off against Chinese rivals (like Huawei) that have the firm support of the Chinese government, and face few antitrust constraints of their own.

Under those circumstances, will US lawmakers — who seem to agree across party lines on the need to confront China — think twice about putting fresh constraints on America's heavyweight fighters? Or would they reason that regulating Big Tech better would ease some of the social polarization that afflicts the US, and create an even more powerful and innovative economy in the future?

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We're just days away from COP26, the landmark global climate conference that's been dubbed the last chance to get the climate crisis in check. In the lead-up to the event in Glasgow, dozens of countries have released new ambitions to reduce their future carbon footprints. For years, climate activists and experts have called on governments to introduce carbon pricing schemes – either through taxes or emissions-trading schemes. So who's heeded the warning? We take a look at the top ten carbon emitters' share of global emissions and details about their respective national carbon pricing schemes.

Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

Do cryptocurrencies make it harder to enforce foreign policy sanctions?

Well, that is exactly what the Biden administration worries about. As part of growing concerns of whether unregulated currencies undermine a whole host of policies, sanctions and foreign or trade policy should be a priority area. And just like others who wish to evade tracing of their wealth or transactions, the very states or their sanctioned entities should be assumed to resort to all options to evade restrictions while continuing to do business. So having cryptocurrencies undermining the ability to enforce strategic goals logically raises eyebrows in Washington.

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Back in August, when the Taliban took over, we asked whether anyone in the international community would recognize them. Now it looks like things are heading that way.

This week, the Kremlin hosted a summit with the Taliban that was attended by China, India and Pakistan, as well as all five Central Asian Republics.

The domestically-focused US, however, wasn't there. The US continues to maintain that the Taliban can't be trusted. But does it matter? In 2021 does a Taliban-led government even need American recognition to function and thrive?

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For Kevin Rudd, former Australian PM and now CEO of the Asia Society, the science on climate change is pretty much done, so the only unresolved issues are tech and — more importantly — lack of political leadership. He can't think of a single national political leader who can fill the role, and says the only way to get political action on climate is to mobilize public opinion.

Rudd joined for the first of a two-part Sustainability Leaders Summit livestream conversation sponsored by Suntory. Watch here and register here to watch part two Friday 10/22 at 8 am ET.

Taking place on October 21 and 22, the Sustainability Leaders Summit will go beyond preexisting narratives and debate priorities for governments and industries ahead of COP26. Placing the spotlight on Asia's role in the global sustainability agenda, the event will address whether Asian countries and companies can achieve shared sustainability goals, and what is needed to help get them there. The summit will be co-hosted by Tak Niinami, CEO of Suntory Holdings, and Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. We will address three key questions: How can Asian countries, with the help of the private sector, achieve shared Sustainability Goals? Why does this matter? And what are the policy changes needed to bring it about?

Attendance is free and open to the public. Register to attend.

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The minutiae of supply chains makes for boring dinner table talk, but it's increasingly becoming a hot topic of conversation now that packages are taking much longer to arrive in the consumer-oriented US, while prices of goods soar.

With the issue unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, right-wing media have dubbed President Biden the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, conjuring images of sad Christmas trees surrounded by distraught children whose holiday gifts are stuck somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

It hasn't been a good run for Uncle Joe in recent months. What issues are tripping him up?

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the NBA's latest rift with China, Brazil's Senate investigation, and COVID booster shots.

China wipes Boston Celtics from NBA broadcast after the "Free Tibet" speech from Enes Kanter. Is NBA boxing itself into a corner?

Nice mixed sports metaphor there. NBA has some challenges because they are of course the most progressive on political and social issues in the United States among sports leagues, but not when it comes to China, their most important international market. And you've seen that with LeBron James telling everyone about we need to learn better from the Communist Party on issues like Hong Kong and how Daryl Morey got hammered for taking his stance in favor of Hong Kong democracy. Well, Enes Kanter's doing the same thing and he's a second-string center. Didn't even play yesterday and still the Chinese said that they were not going to air any Boston Celtics games. Why? Because he criticized the Chinese government and had some "Free Tibet" sneakers. This is a real problem for a lot of corporations out there, but particularly publicly, the NBA. Watch for a bunch of American politicians to make it harder for the NBA going forward, saying how dare you kowtow to the Chinese when you're all about "Black Lives Matter" inside the United States. No fun.

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