LAST WEEK, PRESIDENTIAL candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) announced an ambitious plan to break up big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon and block them from selling their own products on their platforms.
Warren called out Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp and Google’s acquisition of online advertising giant DoubleClick as examples of the deals she’d like to see reversed. But why were these companies allowed to grow so big—and these purchases allowed—in the first place?
In his book, The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, published in November, legal scholar Tim Wu explains how conservative views of antitrust laws first promoted by Robert Bork and the “Chicago School” in the 1970s became fully mainstream by the early 2000s. Today, judges evaluating antitrust claims tend not to look at how many competitors a company has, or how much influence it has over the economy, but simply at whether a company’s business practices have raised prices for consumers. That left companies like Google and Facebook, which offer their main services for free, largely free from oversight even as they acquired competitors and amassed enormous power over the information people see.
It wasn’t always so. Wu, a law professor at Columbia best known for coining the term “net neutrality,” details how presidents of both parties used the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which outlawed monopolistic business practices, to split up the likes of Standard Oil and AT&T, and to block anticompetitive mergers. Wu points to more than a century of “trust busting” tradition to make the case that elected leaders have the legal power, and the responsibility, to break up monopolies that reduce competition, slow the pace of innovation, and damage the fabric of democracy.
WIRED spoke with Wu about how antitrust enforcement all but died in the US, and how leaders could bring it back. An edited transcript follows: