GZERO Media logo

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?

Urbanization may radically change not only the landscape but also investors' portfolios. Creating the livable urban centers of tomorrow calls for a revolution in the way we provide homes, transport, health, education and much more.

Our expert guests will explore the future of cities and its implications for your wealth.

Learn more.

Back in 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump presented his vision for an "America First" foreign policy, which symbolized a radical departure from the US' longtime approach to international politics and diplomacy.

In electing Donald Trump, a political outsider, to the top job, American voters essentially gave him a mandate to follow through on these promises. So, has he?

Trade

"A continuing rape of our country."

On the 2016 campaign trail, candidate Trump said that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a 12 country trade deal pushed by the Obama administration — would "rape" America's economy by imperiling the manufacturing sector, closing factories, and taking more jobs overseas.

More Show less

In an op-ed titled "Iran Arms Embargo Reckoning," the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues that ending the UN arms embargo on Iran was a major flaw of the 2015 nuclear deal and questions whether Biden could do anything to contain Iran at this point. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group's Henry Rome take out the Red Pen to explain why this discussion misrepresents the importance of the embargo and the consequences for its expiration.

So, the US presidential election is now just days away, and today's selection is focusing on a specific aspect of foreign policy that will certainly change depending on who wins in the presidential contest—namely America's approach to Iran.

You've heard me talk before about the many similarities between Trump and Biden on some international policies, like on China or on Afghanistan. But Iran is definitely not one of those. Trump hated the JCPOA, the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, put together under the Obama administration, and he walked away from it unilaterally. Joe Biden, if he were to become president, would try to bring it back.

More Show less

It almost didn't happen — but here we are again. President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden face off tonight in the final presidential debate of the 2020 US election campaign.

More Show less

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US President George W. Bush demanded that Afghanistan's Taliban government surrender Osama bin Laden and end support for al-Qaeda. The Taliban refused.

On October 7, US bombs began falling on Taliban forces. NATO allies quickly pledged support for the US, and US boots hit the ground in Afghanistan two weeks later.

Thus began a war, now the longest in US history, that has killed more than 3,500 coalition soldiers and 110,000 Afghans. It has cost the American taxpayer nearly $3 trillion. US allies have also made human and material sacrifices.

More Show less
UNGA banner

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal

Episode 6: Big cities after COVID: boom or bust?

Living Beyond Borders Podcasts