Big Tech and the Parable of the Broken Window

Corbin K. Barthold —  4 August 2020

This guest post is by Corbin K. Barthold, Senior Litigation Counsel at Washington Legal Foundation.

A boy throws a brick through a bakeshop window. He flees and is never identified. The townspeople gather around the broken glass. “Well,” one of them says to the furious baker, “at least this will generate some business for the windowmaker!”

A reasonable statement? Not really. Although it is indeed a good day for the windowmaker, the money for the new window comes from the baker. Perhaps the baker was planning to use that money to buy a new suit. Now, instead of owning a window and a suit, he owns only a window. The windowmaker’s gain, meanwhile, is simply the tailor’s loss.

This parable of the broken window was conceived by Frédéric Bastiat, a nineteenth-century French economist. He wanted to alert the reader to the importance of opportunity costs—in his words, “that which is not seen.” Time and money spent on one activity cannot be spent on another.

Today Bastiat might tell the parable of the harassed technology company. A tech firm creates a revolutionary new product or service and grows very large. Rivals, lawyers, activists, and politicians call for an antitrust probe. Eventually they get their way. Millions of documents are produced, dozens of depositions are taken, and several hearings are held. In the end no concrete action is taken. “Well,” the critics say, “at least other companies could grow while the firm was sidetracked by the investigation!”

Consider the antitrust case against Microsoft twenty years ago. The case ultimately settled, and Microsoft agreed merely to modify minor aspects of how it sold its products. “It’s worth wondering,” writes Brian McCullough, a generally astute historian of the internet, “how much the flowering of the dot-com era was enabled by the fact that the most dominant, rapacious player in the industry was distracted while the new era was taking shape.” “It’s easy to see,” McCullough says, “that the antitrust trial hobbled Microsoft strategically, and maybe even creatively.”

Should we really be glad that an antitrust dispute “distracted” and “hobbled” Microsoft? What would a focused and unfettered Microsoft have achieved? Maybe nothing; incumbents often grow complacent. Then again, Microsoft might have developed a great search engine or social-media platform. Or it might have invented something that, thanks to the lawsuit, remains absent to this day. What Microsoft would have created in the early 2000s, had it not had to fight the government, is that which is not seen.

But doesn’t obstructing the most successful companies create “room” for new competitors? David Cicilline, the chairman of the House’s antitrust subcommittee, argues that “just pursuing the [Microsoft] enforcement action itself” made “space for an enormous amount of additional innovation and competition.” He contends that the large tech firms seek to buy promising startups before they become full-grown threats, and that such purchases must be blocked.

It’s easy stuff to say. It’s not at all clear that it’s true or that it makes sense. Hindsight bias is rampant. In 2012, for example, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, a purchase that is now cited as a quintessential “killer acquisition.” At the time of the sale, however, Instagram had 27 million users and $0 in revenue. Today it has around a billion users, it is estimated to generate $7 billion in revenue each quarter, and it is worth perhaps $100 billion. It is presumptuous to declare that Instagram, which had only 13 employees in 2012, could have achieved this success on its own.

If distraction is an end in itself, last week’s Big Tech hearing before Cicilline and his subcommittee was a smashing success. Presumably Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, and Mark Zuckerberg would like to spend the balance of their time developing the next big innovations and staying ahead of smart, capable, ruthless competitors, starting with each other and including foreign firms such as ByteDance and Huawei. Last week they had to put their aspirations aside to prepare for and attend five hours of political theater.

The most common form of exchange at the hearing ran as follows. A representative asks a slanted question. The witness begins to articulate a response. The representative cuts the witness off. The representative gives a prepared speech about how the witness’s answer proved her point.

Lucy Kay McBath, a first-term congresswoman from Georgia, began one such drill with the claim that Facebook’s privacy policy from 2004, when Zuckerberg was 20 and Facebook had under a million users, applies in perpetuity. “We do not and will not use cookies to collect private information from any users,” it said. Has Facebook broken its “promise,” McBath asked, not to use cookies to collect private information? No, Zuckerberg explained (letting the question’s shaky premise slide), Facebook uses only standard log-in cookies.

“So once again, you do not use cookies? Yes or no?” McBath interjected. Having now asked a completely different question, and gotten a response resembling what she wanted—“Yes, we use cookies [on log-in features]”—McBath could launch into her canned condemnation. “The bottom line here,” she said, reading from her page, “is that you broke a commitment to your users. And who can say whether you may or may not do that again in the future?” The representative pressed on with her performance, not noticing or not caring that the person she was pretending to engage with had upset her script.

Many of the antitrust subcommittee’s queries had nothing to do with antitrust. One representative fixated on Amazon’s ties with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Another seemed to want Facebook to interrogate job applicants about their political beliefs. A third asked Zuckerberg to answer for the conduct of Twitter. One representative demanded that social-media posts about unproven Covid-19 treatments be left up, another that they be taken down. Most of the questions that were at least vaguely on topic, meanwhile, were exceedingly weak. The representatives often mistook emails showing that tech CEOs play to win, that they seek to outcompete challengers and rivals, for evidence of anticompetitive harm to consumers. And the panel was often treated like a customer-service hotline. This app developer ran into a difficulty; what say you, Mr. Cook? That third-party seller has a gripe; why won’t you listen to her, Mr. Bezos?

In his opening remarks, Bezos cited a survey that ranked Amazon one of the country’s most trusted institutions. No surprise there. In many places one could have ordered a grocery delivery from Amazon as the hearing started and had the goods put away before it ended. Was Bezos taking a muted dig at Congress? He had every right to—it is one of America’s least trusted institutions. Pichai, for his part, noted that many users would be willing to pay thousands of dollars a year for Google’s free products. Is Congress providing people that kind of value?

The advance of technology will never be an unalloyed blessing. There are legitimate concerns, for instance, about how social-media platforms affect public discourse. “Human beings evolved to gossip, preen, manipulate, and ostracize,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt and technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell observe. Social media exploits these tendencies, they contend, by rewarding those who trade in the glib put-down, the smug pronouncement, the theatrical smear. Speakers become “cruel and shallow”; “nuance and truth” become “casualties in [a] competition to gain the approval of [an] audience.”

Three things are true at once. First, Haidt and Rose-Stockwell have a point. Second, their point goes only so far. Social media does not force people to behave badly. Assuming otherwise lets individual humans off too easy. Indeed, it deprives them of agency. If you think it is within your power to display grace, love, and transcendence, you owe it to others to think it is within their power as well.

Third, if you really want to see adults act like children, watch a high-profile congressional hearing. A hearing for Attorney General William Barr, held the day before the Big Tech hearing and attended by many of the same representatives, was a classic of the format.

The tech hearing was not as shambolic as the Barr hearing. And the representatives act like sanctimonious halfwits in part to concoct the sick burns that attract clicks on the very platforms built, facilitated, and delivered by the tech companies. For these and other obvious reasons, no one should feel sorry for the four men who spent a Wednesday afternoon serving as props for demagogues. But that doesn’t mean the charade was a productive use of time. There is always that which is not seen.