The social media behemoths wield unprecedented power over public discourse.
Many people across the political spectrum are increasingly clamoring for Big Tech to be broken up, especially after the recent Facebook outage demonstrated how reliant many of us have become on one single social media giant.
Without a doubt, companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple have amassed great power. Facebook, Alphabet Inc (Google), Amazon, Tesla, Microsoft, Apple, and Netflix have a combined fortune of almost $8 trillion. That's more than the GDPs of Germany, India, and the United Kingdom put together. But, before governments try to break up the Big Tech monopoly, we need to figure out what the true problem is with Big Tech.
It's not only that these companies have a monopoly on the technology market. Many have compared Big Tech corporations to 19th-century American robber barons, who were the target of the first antitrust legislation in the United States. Today, though, the situation is substantially worse.
As Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons: the Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901 (1934) shows, the robber barons used force to brutally monopolise the strategic valley roads and mountain passes that commerce flowed through. They were ruthless operators who bought off politicians like others purchased daily goods.
When the US government decided to curtail the power of the robber barons in the 1880s, it did so because it saw democratic politics as a necessary counterweight to the power of private businessmen.
After a decade of heavy labor and agricultural agitation, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was adopted, breaking up the robber barons' monopolies.
Politicians felt compelled to act in order to defend the free market economy from the rise of socialist ideas among disgruntled employees.
They also saw that a political counterweight to the disproportionate concentration of power in the hands of a few was required.
As Justice William O Douglas, reflecting on antitrust laws in 1948, put it: ‘Power that controls the economy should be in the hands of elected representatives of the people, not in the hands of an industrial oligarchy.’ Decentralising power, he argued, would ensure that ‘the fortunes of the people will not be dependent on the whim or caprice, the political prejudice, the emotional stability of a few self-appointed men’.
The problems posed by the Big Tech barons are very different to those posed by the 19th-century robber barons. Big Tech firms are not simply limiting our options in the marketplace, they are also restricting the marketplace of ideas. Indeed, they exert a power and control over the public sphere that would have been impossible to imagine 100 years ago.
In 1924, for example, Herbert Hoover argued that ‘we cannot allow any single person or group to place themselves in the position where they can censor the material which shall be broadcasted to the public’. Nearly a hundred years later, and the social-media firms are in exactly this position. Even former president Donald Trump was forced to appeal to Facebook’s ‘supreme court’ to try to retain his right to communicate via social media. And Twitter was able to suspend the account of the New York Post, because it took against the paper’s coverage of the Hunter Biden affair during the 2020 presidential elections.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter now have more authority than any national government to regulate and suppress public debate. In human history, they have never had such complete influence over the content of public debate.
With over 2.9 billion active members, Facebook is the most popular social media platform on the planet. Mark Zuckerberg controls the information environment for a population that is larger than India and China combined. Facebook is not protected by the First Amendment or any other international proclamation of the right to free expression. Zuckerberg is not a politician who has been elected. He is an unaccountable baron who controls the public square's keys.
This is the fundamental issue with Big Tech: it has monopolized and dominated the public sphere. Recognizing this is the first step toward a genuine public debate about the future of the organization.
Norman Lewis is the managing director of Futures Diagnosis and a writer.
Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.