Elizabeth Warren breaking up big IT


This post was originally written in March 2019, but didn’t leave the drafts folder. I’m publishing now before it becomes even more outdated.

American presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren called for big tech companies to be broken up. Even if it only ever amounts to a hypothetical, it’s a useful discussion to have given how much control these few companies have on the lives of so many people.

I can see the merits of the idea:

  • Private monopolies are incompatible with free markets; their size prevents upstarts from effectively competing.

  • These tech companies wield sufficient control to unilaterally dictate how the internet works. This should be of grave concern regardless of technical merit; and it surprises me these companies get such a free pass.

  • Microsoft was found guilty of monopolistic practices that have been far eclipsed by these large tech companies. Being sued for a bundled browser and the AARD code sound quaint by comparison.

  • These companies have done nothing to earn our trust.

But I can see some counterpoints:

  • These companies benefit from the so-called network effect. People use large social networks because their friends are there. It’s unclear to me breaking up companies wouldn’t naturally end up causing the same scale companies to grow out again; like a modern Bell System.

  • It could potentially give foreign companies an advantage. Those of us outside the US have been living with that reality already, but there’s a larger, undemocratic country that could easily eclipse it.

My key point over years has been the same: our economies are set up to incentivise parasitic and unethical behaviour. Until this peverse reward system is addressed, I fear any other actions are tantamount to perennial Titanic deck chair rearrangement.

I’ll be interested to see where this discussion goes.

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