Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to dismantle dominant tech companies has, naturally, generated quite the critical response. I’ve seen plenty of well-considered articles praising her stance and generally agreeing with it. I’ve also read some great pieces disagreeing with her: Mike Masnick doesn’t think it makes sense; Karl Bode thinks that, if we ought to have a discussion about antitrust, we must also consider ISPs and mobile carriers; and Kevin Roose thinks that treating all tech companies the same is short-sighted.
But nothing I’ve read comes close to the raging tire fire that is Rich Lowry’s op-ed in Politico:
Tech is caught in a right-left pincer, made all the more powerful by the populist spirit afoot in both parties. Conservatives don’t like these companies because they are owned and operated by sanctimonious Silicon Valley liberals subject to the worst sort of groupthink. Progressives don’t like them because they are colossal profit-making enterprises.
That’s why there is some chance Washington might get together, and along the lines Warren proposes, effectively outlaw the business models of some of the most successful and iconic American companies. It’s the most compelling evidence yet that, yes, we are losing our minds.
Lowry’s framing here, using caricatures of the players involved, obfuscates legitimate criticism of large tech companies. Nobody ought to believe or consider these ridiculous straw man arguments when the actual reason is perfectly understandable: a handful of technology companies have more control over how people around the world communicate, learn, and do business than almost any other business has had for decades. It is welcoming that antitrust concerns may still be bipartisan after the interpretation of such laws has become extraordinarily narrow-minded for the last thirty to forty years — as Lowry conveniently illustrates just a couple of paragraphs later:
[Sen. Warren] charges that the tech companies use mergers to limit competition and cites as an example Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp. It’s hard to discern the harm here. When the social network bought it, WhatsApp was available for a fee. Now it’s free and more people use it than ever before. What’s the problem?
Forget, for example, that the fee to use WhatsApp prior to Facebook’s acquisition of it was all of $1. Set aside, too, that the elimination of that fee came with targeted advertising in the app, and that Facebook’s acquisition of the company served to feed its data mining machine.
Lowry, here, basically argues that reduced competition is just fine so long as the cost of goods does not increase. But it also means that there’s vastly reduced choice in the marketplace. Of the current top five free apps in the App Store, four are from Facebook; three of those are either wholly or partly direct messaging apps. Two of those — WhatsApp and Instagram — are apps Facebook acquired.
Reduced competition isn’t solely a problem of price, either. From a capitalist viewpoint, choice in the marketplace also allows consumers to switch to alternatives when a product, service, or company doesn’t meet their expectations; it also encourages innovation. The publication that Lowry edits, the National Review, has a history of publishing articles that affirm this belief.
She calls out Google for allegedly killing off its competitors by burying them in its searches. It’s not obvious that Google actually does this, although its search business inherently involves constantly making choices to try to best serve what people want to see. No government regulator is going to make Google’s searches better, or is qualified to even try.
European and American regulators already found that Google has artificially prioritized its own products in search results and deliberately demoted competitors. European antitrust investigators, in particular, indicated that Google’s shopping service was promoted even when it wasn’t necessarily relevant or as helpful as competitors’ results.
Why does Google provide a tool without which it’s impossible to imagine contemporary life — and has opened up vast vistas of readily available information — for free? Because it can monetize it with advertising. Without the advertising revenue, which Warren insists should be a separate business, Google has no incentive to devote engineers to constantly improving its search engine.
Warren’s proposal doesn’t say that Google cannot fund its search engine or its myriad other products with advertising. Instead, she’s advocating for a separation of the explicitly advertising technology parts of the company from the end-user side of things.
Maybe Lowry doesn’t mean advertising more generally. A more generous read of this could be that Google’s user products would suffer from forcing their targeted advertising technologies to be a separate company from their user products. But I don’t buy that either. Google rose to be the best web search engine before they began building user profiles and targeting ads in a precise way.
None of this is to deny that there are genuine concerns about tech companies. They need rules for content that honor viewpoint-neutrality and the spirit of the First Amendment, and perhaps there should be tighter regulations around privacy.
This might be Lowry’s laziest point so far. The spirit of the First Amendment protects the right of these private companies in privately-negotiated contracts between them and users to make choices about what they wish to allow on their platforms. If Lowry believes that Facebook has too much control over speech, that’s because Facebook is a gigantic company that swallows competitors or copies them with impunity. The solution is decidedly not to promote Facebook to even greater control over users’ communications and somehow also treat them as a passthrough entity for American government interests. This is a ridiculous argument that’s a hair’s breadth away from effectively nationalizing the company. I am not inherently opposed to that, but I imagine Lowry would be.
And how does Lowry suppose “viewpoint neutrality” would be enforced by a private entity? What is “neutral”? Does it mean a platform ought to treat every viewpoint identically, no matter how heinous and hateful? How does that work in countries that are not the United States and, therefore, have laws designed to protect the rights of typically-persecuted individuals? How does that work with platforms’ increasingly-algorithmic arrangement and promotion of shared material? It’s ludicrous.
I think there are perfectly reasonable criticisms for what Warren has said so far regarding her plan to break up tech companies. It is clearly a starting point for such a discussion — not a final regulatory document. But there are few articles I’ve seen which are as lazy and dismissive of it as Lowry’s. There is simply no reason to frame this in stereotypical partisan terms when Warren’s argument is so easily understood and, therefore, worth discussing for its potential implications. Plenty of other writers did a far better job.