Should We Break Up Big Tech? A Look Behind the (Political) Scenes

Thibault Schrepel —  5 August 2019

[This post is the sixth in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by Thibault Schrepel, Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center at Harvard University and Assistant Professor in European Economic Law at Utrecht University School of Law.]

The pretense of ignorance

Over the last few years, I have published a series of antitrust conversations with Nobel laureates in economics. I have discussed big tech dominance with most of them, and although they have different perspectives, all of them agreed on one thing: they do not know what the effect of breaking up big tech would be. In fact, I have never spoken with any economist who was able to show me convincing empirical evidence that breaking up big tech would on net be good for consumers. The same goes for political scientists; I have never read any article that, taking everything into consideration, proves empirically that breaking up tech companies would be good for protecting democracies, if that is the objective (please note that I am not even discussing the fact that using antitrust law to do that would violate the rule of law, for more on the subject, click here).

This reminds me of Friedrich Hayek’s Nobel memorial lecture, in which he discussed the “pretense of knowledge.” He argued that some issues will always remain too complex for humans (even helped by quantum computers and the most advanced AI; that’s right!). Breaking up big tech is one such issue; it is simply impossible simultaneously to consider the micro and macro-economic impacts of such an enormous undertaking, which would affect, literally, billions of people. Not to mention the political, sociological and legal issues, all of which combined are beyond human understanding.

Ignorance + fear = fame

In the absence of clear-cut conclusions, here is why (I think), some officials are arguing for breaking up big tech. First, it may be possible that some of them actually believe that it would be great. But I am sure we agree that beliefs should not be a valid basis for such actions. More realistically, the answer can be found in the work of another Nobel laureate, James Buchanan, and in particular his 1978 lecture in Vienna entitled “Politics Without Romance.”

In his lecture and the paper that emerged from it, Buchanan argued that while markets fail, so do governments. The latter is especially relevant insofar as top officials entrusted with public power may, occasionally at least, use that power to benefit their personal interests rather than the public interest. Thus, the presumption that government-imposed corrections for market failures always accomplish the desired objectives must be rejected. Taking that into consideration, it follows that the expected effectiveness of public action should always be established as precisely and scientifically as possible before taking action. Integrating these insights from Hayek and Buchanan, we must conclude that it is not possible to know whether the effects of breaking up big tech would on net be positive.

The question then is why, in the absence of positive empirical evidence, are some officials arguing for breaking up tech giants then? Well, because defending such actions may help them achieve their personal goals. Often, it is more important for public officials to show their muscle and take action, rather showing great care about reaching a positive net result for society. This is especially true when it is practically impossible to evaluate the outcome due to the scale and complexity of the changes that ensue. That enables these officials to take credit for being bold while avoiding blame for the harms.

But for such a call to be profitable for the public officials, they first must legitimize the potential action in the eyes of the majority of the public. Until now, most consumers evidently like the services of tech giants, which is why it is crucial for the top officials engaged in such a strategy to demonize those companies and further explain to consumers why they are wrong to enjoy them. Only then does defending the breakup of tech giants becomes politically valuable.

Some data, one trend

In a recent paper entitled “Antitrust Without Romance,” I have analyzed the speeches of the five current FTC commissioners, as well as the speeches of the current and three previous EU Competition Commissioners. What I found is an increasing trend to demonize big tech companies. In other words, public officials increasingly seek to prepare the general public for the idea that breaking up tech giants would be great.

In Europe, current Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has sought to establish an opposition between the people (referred under the pronoun “us”) and tech companies (referred under the pronoun “them”) in more than 80% of her speeches. She further describes these companies as engaging in manipulation of the public and unleashing violence. She says they, “distort or fabricate information, manipulate people’s views and degrade public debate” and help “harmful, untrue information spread faster than ever, unleashing violence and undermining democracy.” Furthermore, she says they cause, “danger of death.” On this basis, she mentions the possibility of breaking them up (for more data about her speeches, see this link).

In the US, we did not observe a similar trend. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who has responsibility for antitrust enforcement at the Department of Justice, describes the relationship between people and companies as being in opposition in fewer than 10% of his speeches. The same goes for most of the FTC commissioners (to see all the data about their speeches, see this link). The exceptions are FTC Chairman Joseph J. Simons, who describes companies’ behavior as “bad” from time to time (and underlines that consumers “deserve” better) and Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who describes the relationship between companies and the people as being in opposition to one another in 30% of his speeches. Chopra also frequently labels companies as “bad.” These are minor signs of big tech demonization compared to what is currently done by European officials. But, unfortunately, part of the US doctrine (which does not hide political objectives) pushes for demonizing big tech companies. One may have reason to fear that such a trend will grow in the US as it has in Europe, especially considering the upcoming presidential campaign in which far-right and far-left politicians seem to agree about the need to break up big tech.

And yet, let’s remember that no-one has any documented, tangible, and reproducible evidence that breaking up tech giants would be good for consumers, or societies at large, or, in fact, for anyone (even dolphins, okay). It might be a good idea; it might be a bad idea. Who knows? But the lack of evidence either way militates against taking such action. Meanwhile, there is strong evidence that these discussions are fueled by a handful of individuals wishing to benefit from such a call for action. They do so, first, by depicting tech giants as representing the new elite in opposition to the people and they then portray themselves as the only saviors capable of taking action.

Epilogue: who knows, life is not a Tarantino movie

For the last 30 years, antitrust law has been largely immune to strategic takeover by political interests. It may now be returning to a previous era in which it was the instrument of a few. This transformation is already happening in Europe (it is expected to hit case law there quite soon) and is getting real in the US, where groups display political goals and make antitrust law a Trojan horse for their personal interests.The only semblance of evidence they bring is a few allegedly harmful micro-practices (see Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox), which they use as a basis for defending the urgent need of macro, structural measures, such as breaking up tech companies. This is disproportionate, but most of all and in the absence of better knowledge, purely opportunistic and potentially foolish. Who knows at this point whether antitrust law will come out intact of this populist and moralist episode? And who knows what the next idea of those who want to use antitrust law for purely political purposes will be. Life is not a Tarantino movie; it may end up badly.