There must be 50 ways to break up Big Tech

break up big tech
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Plenty of people seem to think it’s high time to break up Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. But not everyone agrees on how to do just that, in part because not everyone agrees just what parts of Big Tech’s ‘bigness’ poses the biggest problem that needs fixing. [What? Ed.]

As Disruptive.Asia reported earlier, US Senator (and current Presidential candidate) Elizabeth Warren has made breaking up Big Tech a key plank of her campaign platform, and has a plan for doing just that – reclassify them as platform utilities and force the ones making over $25 billion to divest things like messaging platforms and apps/service units. But that sounds like an old-school trustbusting tactic that may not work well with tightly integrated platform companies. (Put another way, splitting up AT&T didn’t reduce the quality of your phone calls, but splitting up Google could make Google Maps less reliable or useful.)

MIT Technology Review has a good roundup of some alternative ideas being proposed, each of which have a different notion of where the real harm of Big Tech having too much market power lies, and thus what to do about it. To summarize:

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor of internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute who has also written a lot about the pros and cons of big data, believes the problem isn’t the size of Big Tech firms but that they’re sitting on so much big data (a.k.a. the new oil) that smaller companies can’t hope to match them, which in turn harms innovation. His solution: force Big Tech to share anonymized data with smaller start-ups – that would give them a fighting chance to bring new innovations to the market without degrading the quality of incumbent apps and services.

Hal Singer of the George Washington Institute of Public Policy argues that the real problem isn’t size or vertically integrated services but prioritizing your own services over competitors. Singer told Bloomberg the solution to this could be a non-discrimination principle similar to the one that currently regulates US cable TV operators who produce their own content, which enables third parties to complain to the Federal Trade Commission. (If this sounds familiar, that’s because this is similar to one of the original principles behind net neutrality before that debate became political and weird.)

A third viewpoint, TR reports, is that the real problem of Big Tech is user lock-in. Solutions for this include data portability (the ability to transfer all your Facebook posts to another social media site, sort of like how LiveJournal users can transfer their old blog content intact to Dreamwidth) and data interoperability (i.e. enabling Snapchat users to crosspost to Instagram).

Those are just three ideas being punted about – there are a number of others. The big question is which one will work. The probable answer: a combination of them.

All have their pros and cons. For example, sharing data or making it portable raises serious issues of privacy and consumer control of that data, which is why Okta CEO Todd McKinnon recommends creating digital identity “wallets” filled with the user’s account info and all associated big data to give them more control over it, according to TR. (Fair warning: Okta is in the digital ID business – but it’s not like he’s wrong.)

Some of the above ideas might also require a certain level of structural separation to work. That could also depend on the company – Hal Singer told Bloomberg that while there may not be a need to break up Google, Amazon and Apple, the same can’t be said for Facebook:

The Facebook problem is a little different. When it appropriates someone else’s functionality, it’s not someone who wants to ride on top of Facebook’s platform. It’s just some poor schmuck who operates somewhere on the web, and Facebook has decided to steal its functionality. So the fact pattern doesn’t line up for Facebook the way it does for Google, Amazon and Apple.

The one thing we can be sure of is that whatever remedies regulators come up with, Big Tech companies will fight them as long as it messes with their business model.

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