Elizabeth Warren’s Big Tech Beatdown Will Spark a Vital and Unprecedented Debate

Elizabeth Warren's call to break up Facebook, Google, and Amazon is imperfect and light on details — but it's a good start.

File-This Feb. 29, 2019, file photo shows Senate Armed Services Committee member, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on "Nuclear Policy and Posture" on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sen. Warren, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, did not call for the minimum wage to be $22 an hour, as posts circulating on social media suggest. However, she did discuss the findings of a study that showed if minimum wage had been tied to productivity between 1960 and 2013, it would be $22 an hour, during a March 2013 Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 29, 2019.

Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP
It’s imperfect, it’s vague in parts, and it will face a conflagration of opposition from the tech lobbying freight train and congressional conservatives for whom antitrust efforts are anathema. But presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s new plan — well, for now it’s just a Medium post — to break up some of the world’s biggest tech firms provides the rarest sign that someone seeking power wants to use that power to weaken Silicon Valley.

Warren’s plan to “break up Big Tech,” as she described it, begins on a strong premise that is uncontroversial outside of Silicon Valley boardrooms: “Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

While it’s hard to choke up too much at the thought of “stifled innovation” at a time when we seem to be suffering from a glut of it, the rest rings true. Facebook, Google, and Amazon have become so large in terms of both revenue and their ability to collect and process data that they’ve come to resemble quasi-governmental entities — uncanny hybrids of private capital and public policy. In its current form, with the ability to control what information reaches over 2 billion people around the world, Facebook is too big to govern, from within or without. With an obvious monopoly on search and its own mammoth, opaque data-harvesting business, Google is also peerless and entirely out of the range of competition.

Facebook is too big to govern.

Warren’s solution is twofold. One component would essentially hit “undo” on various tech acquisitions that have helped Facebook, in particular, build an enormous moat between itself and potential competitors. Warren’s plan would see Instagram and WhatsApp spun off from the mothership, so that photo-sharing on Facebook proper would be forced to compete with photo-sharing on Instagram. This much seems cut and dry and obviously in the spirit of trust-busting, though the attack on Google is more muddled: Warren says she’d have Google divest DoubleClick, the online advertising company it acquired over a decade ago, even though it essentially no longer functions as an independent entity.

The other component of Warren’s plan would be “passing legislation that requires large tech platforms to be designated as ‘Platform Utilities’ and broken apart from any participant on that platform” — meaning that “these companies would be prohibited from owning both the platform utility and any participants on that platform.” “Platform utilities would be required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users,” Warren wrote. “A company found to violate these requirements would also have to pay a fine of 5 percent of annual revenue.” Finally, some teeth.

Warren says this move would require Google’s entire search business to be spun off from the rest of the company, but further industry implications are unclear. Would Apple have to divest iTunes and the App Store? Would Android phones still come bundled with apps that beam data back to Google? How is Warren going to define “a platform for connecting third parties”? There are countless other questions and quibbles. Using Medium posts to develop far-reaching policy proposals has its limits, I guess.

Warren’s plan also falls short in tackling these companies’ ability to unilaterally control the dissemination of information. Facebook can decide who, out of over 2 billion souls, sees, reads, and hears what. The argument that no company, tech or otherwise, should ever have that capacity, remains unaddressed. But this is a start — a very hopeful start — and it’s been a very long time since we’ve seen anything that suggests that wresting power from Facebook et al. is an idea being taken seriously outside of advocacy groups, academia, and opinion columns.

Whether or not Warren wins the Democratic nomination or the presidency, we can expect to see powerful people hoping to become infinitely more powerful forced to discuss whether Facebook should be required to divest itself of Instagram. That’s more than we, the humble data-mined, have ever known.

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