Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.
There has been much talk recently about “breaking up” Big Tech. Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren has made it one of her most visible policies, with Amazon and Facebook in her sights. Even Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has called for the social network to be fragmented in order to check its unprecedented power.
But there is a risk of “Break ‘Em Up” calls becoming a kneejerk response to very complex problems that aren’t essentially antitrust matters.
An example can be found in an opinion piece by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, published yesterday in the Guardian. The piece deals with the issue of politicians spreading untruths on Facebook and Twitter. Pointing out the enormous reach of those platforms, Reich argues that “if they’re unwilling to protect the public against powerful lies, they shouldn’t have as much power to spread them.”
The solution, Reich posits, is to break up Facebook and Twitter. He speculates that the result would be that “the public will have more diverse sources of information, some of which will expose the lies.” Antitrust laws are supposedly appropriate because, apart from holding down consumer prices, they are also about protecting democracy.
One problem with this argument is that Facebook and Twitter already contain diverse sources of information of the sort that Reich wants to see. Do they surface those sources in front of the eyeballs that ought to see them? That’s a difficult question, tied up with the so-called filter bubble effect. But it’s not necessarily an antitrust question.
With Facebook, there is an arguable case for saying the company should be broken up, as its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram have made it and its policies practically unavoidable for billions of users. However, I have no idea what breaking up Twitter would entail. It’s far from being a monolithic entity, and it’s only used by 22% of Americans.
Reich’s issue with Twitter is that President Trump uses it to reach so many millions of people, but that’s not a sign of inadequate competition that requires legal remedies—more likely, it’s because more traditional media heavily use Twitter as a news source.
There are good reasons for the resurgence of interest in antitrust law, particularly when dealing with tech firms that operate marketplaces and formulate search results in which they themselves are active, perhaps unfairly-promoted participants. But it would be a mistake to use antitrust as a sledgehammer for addressing all of Big Tech’s sins.