THERE’S A GROWING bipartisan consensus in the US to rein in the massive power accumulated by dominant tech firms. From state capitals to Congress, officials have launched multiple investigations of whether the big four of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are now forces more for harm than good and whether their size and scale demand government action to curtail them or potentially break them up.
US regulators have not yet shown all their cards, but they should pause before arguing that too big equals anticompetitive, or seeking to break up or substantially restructure the tech giants. Instead, they might want to look to Europe.
The US and EU have long differed in their approaches to Big Tech. US regulators and legislators have focused more on the size of these companies, while the EU has focused on issues related to control of data. Most recently, the EU sued Amazon for taking undue advantage of its customer and vendor data to gain a competitive edge over the thousands of independent businesses who sell through the platform. Earlier, the EU chipped away at Apple’s questionable tax practices and Google’s management of its ad platform. It has also attempted to give individuals more control over their data through rules such as the General Data Protection Regulation, which allows individuals to opt out of cookies and data-tracking on websites they visit.
In the US, by contrast, powerful voices, from Senator Elizabeth Warren to advocates such as the Open Markets Institute, call for antitrust enforcement to break up these companies. Tuesday, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D–Connecticut) urged “a break-up of tech giants. Because they’ve misused their bigness and power.” In the executive branch, Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim, also has spoken of dismantling the big companies.
As appealing as the big stick of antitrust enforcement is to a US government with memories of breaking up Standard Oil and AT&T in the 20th century, it may be the Europeans who are getting to the real issue: the companies’ use, and abuse, of data to erect empires. As European Commission executive vice president Margrethe Vestager wrote in announcing the action against Amazon, “We do not take issue with the success of Amazon or its size. Our concern is a very specific business conduct”—Amazon’s use of its data to privilege its own products over those of other sellers.