Will big tech be broken up?
Noah Wang

Editor's note: Noah Wang is co-founder and chief marketing officer of TOP Network, a Silicon Valley-based tech firm developing a business friendly public blockchain and the world's first blockchain-based cloud communication network. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The conversation surrounding breaking up big tech is turning out to be a major talking point in the U.S. Democratic 2020 primaries. With a handful of big tech companies becoming pervasive in nearly every part of modern society, candidates are now expected to have a stance on the issue of what to do with big tech's unprecedented power and ever-growing influence.

Perhaps most vocal about the subject has been Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has advocated for the breakup of the biggest tech companies, including Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Some of the arguments levied against these companies are that they stifle innovation through anti-competitive tech acquisitions, have unethical data collection policies, and concentrate too much power into the hands of a few.

Indeed, the "Big Five" – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google – have all essentially become monopolies in their respective categories. Whenever a competitor arises, they are either quickly acquired or relegated to obscurity through copycat techniques.

Most people agree that there is something wrong with the current tech ecosystem. However, the debate is whether introducing broad sweeping antitrust legislation or enforcing existing antitrust laws will adequately address the problems surrounding big tech.

While implementing policies to prevent excessive corporate consolidation is a good move to promote competition and reduce the reach of tech conglomerates, it does not necessarily address some of the core issues.

The U.S. social media Facebook logo displayed on a tablet in Paris, February 18, 2019. /VCG Photo

The U.S. social media Facebook logo displayed on a tablet in Paris, February 18, 2019. /VCG Photo

Tech monopolies are not the same beast as the monopolies of the 20th century. Traditionally, the issue with monopolies or duopolies has been that the lack of competition leads to unreasonable price increases, which hurts consumers. In the case of big tech, the opposite is often true, or it is at least a more complex picture.

For instance, Google and Facebook services are free for the most part. As these companies grow, they collect more data, which allows them to produce better services. 

Some technologies only work with massive amounts of data, and competition is not always necessary. Take Google Maps as an example. People are not likely to use the second or third best navigation app, and even if competition is introduced, it is essentially impossible to build up enough data to outcompete Google Maps.

This sounds like a bad thing, but Google Maps is a free service, so it's not like they are price gouging. 

Now some would argue that these services are not really free, as users pay for them with their data, often sacrificing much of their privacy in the process. While this is certainly true, it is not clear that simply breaking up Google or Facebook would fix this issue. Instead, well thought-out data privacy laws and regulations could fix the issue outright.

For instance, if users owned their own data by default, it would remove the stranglehold the Big Five have on user data. Users could offer their self-sovereign digital identity to the service of their choice, which would increase competition, at least in theory. 

Amazon presents a slightly different issue. Amazon provides a great service, allowing sellers to list products on their marketplace and consumers to buy almost anything they want at very low cost and have it arrive at their door in a few days. 

The Amazon logo at the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, February 5, 2019. /VCG Photo

The Amazon logo at the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, February 5, 2019. /VCG Photo

The problem with Amazon is that it controls the marketplace, and also uses the marketplace to sell its own goods. Amazon is guilty of monitoring which products are selling well and then making copycat products of its own, which it sells at a cheaper price.

To make things worse, Amazon controls which page a product will show up on, and so Amazon often pushes its competitors' products to the back pages, while moving its own to the top of page one.

Clearly Amazon has too much power in this regard, but would breaking up Amazon fix this issue? Nothing indicates that it would. If anything, it would result in two or three mini Amazons battling it out, while third-party retailers would remain disadvantaged.

Forcing Amazon to reverse acquisitions, for instance Whole Foods, would not fix the problem either. Instead, there must be targeted regulations to counter ubiquitous platforms like Amazon from favoring their own products and putting small retailers out of business.

This does not mean that nothing should be done about the rampant corporate consolidation practiced by the likes of Amazon and Facebook. The point is that each of the big tech companies has different issues with their own complexities, and so it may be prudent to introduce regulations addressing each issue, rather than broad sweeping legislation to "break up" tech companies, which for the most part provide great services.

Out of the presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren is the only one to provide a clear picture of what is meant by breaking up big tech. Her plan does address some of the issues, like platforms favoring their own first-party products over third-party retailers.

However, on the issues of data privacy and platforms using their power to censor content and drive national narratives as they please, there will need to be additional legislation.

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