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What would breaking up Big Tech companies mean for you?

Chris Raymond/Digital Trends

Politicians, activists, and even some competitors have called on the government to better regulate tech giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple — or even break them up entirely.

Both Republicans and Democrats have gone after Big Tech, including 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), who has made a call to break the companies up a part of her campaign. President Donald Trump has also made comments disparaging Big Tech, and has even called for the government to sue companies like Google and Facebook

“We need some type of body to stand up to [Big Tech] and to let them know we are not okay with them just doing whatever they want anymore,” said Colin Pape, founder of the decentralized search engine Presearch.

The biggest tech firms have been gobbling up the competition for years — just look at Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, one of its biggest social media competitors. A Big Tech breakup would have a massive impact on Silicon Valley. But if the government used its antitrust powers to break up the country’s biggest tech companies, would you even notice the effects in your day-to-day life?

We spoke to some experts to break down how breaking up Big Tech could affect everyday users. 

Who wants to break up Big Tech?

On July 23, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a broad antitrust review. It will look at “whether and how market-leading online platforms have achieved market power and are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers,” the department wrote in a press release announcing the move. While the Justice Department didn’t name the companies it was looking at, it’s likely to be focused on the big four: Apple, Google, Amazon, and Apple.

The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee also began an investigation into the four Big Tech firms last month to determine if these companies and other large platforms prevent outside competition or if they hurt consumers. 

Josh Hawley
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's Office

Republicans have gone after tech too: Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) introduced a controversial bill in June that could hold major tech companies liable for anything posted on their platforms, with the goal of preventing what Hawley describes as political bias.

Some experts say that the antitrust hype is misguided. They argue that under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which prohibits monopolies, Big Tech companies have done nothing wrong. 

“The law isn’t if something is too big or too powerful … the law is if it harms the consumer or harms our country,” said Karen Kovacs North, a professor of Digital Social Media at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Standard Oil and AT&T

The U.S. government has broken up large companies only twice in the last 100 years. Once when the Supreme Court ruled Standard Oil an illegal monopoly in 1911, and again when regulators broke up AT&T in 1982. 

The Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil because it restrained trade due to deals with railroads and engaged in unfair practices to drive smaller oil competitors into the ground. Standard Oil was then broken up into 34 independent companies. 

“… They have frequently done the opposite and done everything in their power to get away with as much as possible …”

In AT&T’s situation, the Department of Justice decided that the company had a monopoly over phone services. AT&T gave up its regional phone service companies so consumers could have fair choices. 

Both these cases are different than the current situation in Silicon Valley, since they occurred long before the internet was around and a part of our everyday lives. However, both companies effectively dominated the industries they were in, sometimes using deceptive practices. 

Pape said that while he isn’t keen on the idea of government intervention in business affairs, in the case of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, he says it’s starting to become necessary to do so. 

“They have had plenty of opportunities to police themselves, and they have frequently done the opposite and done everything in their power to get away with as much as possible that’s in their own interest and not necessarily in the interest of their user base,” he said. 

Still, Mark McCareins, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said that deceptive practices alone don’t break antitrust laws.

“To date, no one has pointed to anything that any of these companies have done that would be actionable under our current laws,” he said. 

We are at a moment in time where there is paranoia surrounding the influence of social media, with apps and networks having access to our personal data, speculation that Instagram is listening in on our conversations, and foreign countries creating fake accounts on social media to influence the American people. Experts like North and McCareins wonder if this paranoia is driving pressure to break up Big Tech. 

What would breaking up Big Tech even look like?

We use a variety of apps, phones, and tools made by Big Tech companies day in and day out to search for information, connect with others, purchase products, and entertain ourselves. Breaking them all up might make it harder to use our favorite tools. 

Pape pointed to Google and all of its products — YouTube, Google Docs, Google Drive and Chrome — as a strategy on Google’s part to keep people in the “Google universe,” and that breaking apart these aspects of Google would level the playing field for other search engines. 

“What [Google] has done by bundling all these different services together is pull people in,” he said. “If we were to separate the actual search entity and the search index from all these other properties that they own, it would go a long way for others to effectively compete.” 

Sundar Pichai
Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive Officer of Google Image used with permission by copyright holder

Pape said that in an ideal world, internet search engines would be set up as a community-controlled utility. 

“Search has massive value and ramifications both economic and societal,” he said. “If we would collectively create a nonprofit search engine that could serve as a gateway into the world’s information, it would benefit the user.” 

So a tech breakup could leave us with a Google without all the shiny add-ons like Chrome and Google Drive. But what about Facebook or Amazon? 

Facebook is the parent company to both Instagram and WhatsApp. Combined, the three platforms have billions of users. A Big Tech breakup might mean that Facebook would have to give up WhatsApp and Instagram. For users, that could mean new policies and algorithms for these apps. 

Michael Overing, an attorney and adjunct professor of communications at USC’s Annenberg School, said it might take a while for users to feel the impact of a breakup if it were to happen. 

“You might not know it at all, until over time you won’t have access to X, Y or Z [features],” he said. “Or, you might come to find you have to pay for it.” 

“With respect to Facebook and Google, there are other issues relating to privacy that the antitrust laws do not get into … “

As for Amazon, the company owns Whole Foods, has its own video streaming service, music streaming service, and a widely used cloud computing platform, Amazon Web Services. If it’s broken up, Amazon could have to give up these separate entities and go back to its original form as a marketplace, as opposed to selling its own products. That could drive up prices since Amazon could no longer offer massive discounts on products it owns, like a Ring security system. 

Aside from Warren, politicians calling for the breakup of Big Tech have given few details on what that would actually look like. Since each of these Big Tech giants have their toes dipped in multiple waters, experts say it makes sense that dividing up the multiple entities they control would be the solution.

Warren’s plan, for example, would split off Whole Foods and Zappos from Amazon, WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook, and Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick from Google.

Digital Trends reached out to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission about their investigations, but has not received any response at the time of publishing. We also reached out to Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple for comment, but have yet to hear back. 

Many of the problems could persist

Government officials worry that these platforms have become too big and too influential in our everyday lives. While we do live a tech-centered lifestyle, breaking up Big Tech wouldn’t solve many of the problems that real users are having with these platforms – especially around issues of privacy and tech’s influence over our culture.

“With respect to Facebook and Google, there are other issues relating to privacy that the antitrust laws do not get into, so if someone separately wants to say one of these companies has been privately misusing our data and we need to break them up to regulate them, then that’s a whole different discussion,” McCareins said. 

Zuckerberg Testimony Congress
Mark Zuckerberg appears before Congress on April 10, 2018. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook, for example, has been hit with multiple privacy lawsuits over the years, as well as been accused of being cavalier with users’ data. Most recently, it was hit with a $5 billion FTC fine over the way it handled personal data in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The same day the fine was announced, Facebook disclosed that it was also under an FTC antitrust investigation.

But there are other reasons to regulate social media in particular: Its power to persuade and spread information — or misinformation.

North said the government should carry digital media laws over to social platforms like Facebook. These laws are already in place for TV and radio advertisements. For political ads on Facebook, these types of laws could include a disclosure statement like, “X candidate approves of this message.” 

“I just don’t know under what grounds we would break them up, let alone how it would be done.”

“People are upset about things like influence and power and persuasiveness, but no one is extending the very simple laws to digital media, which would certainly have an impact,” she said. 

In some ways, breaking up Big Tech could actively make the internet worse, North argued. She thinks the fundamental impact Google has made upon internet search is crucial to consider. 

“We don’t think of Google as a business in our daily lives, we think of Google as a place to go to find the things we seek,” said North. “If you split them up within search, then you have really taken the most robust search tool and made it weaker … and how does that help the consumer?”

What’s next?

If the government is truly serious about breaking up these companies, the hearings and investigations already underway would have to prove they violate antitrust laws.

On July 16, three separate hearings questioned Big Tech executives from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. According to the New York Times, they were hit with questions from skeptical lawmakers from both parties regarding their market power and perceived bias. But bluster is one thing: proving that these companies are breaking the law is another — especially since Big Tech has the money for top lawyers and a protracted legal battle. 

And Facebook has even another battle to face. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the FTC has opened up a new investigation into Facebook regarding the tech giant’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp. The FTC’s main focus is if Facebook was a part of a campaign to acquire social media rivals before they would become a threat to them.

Still, an investigation is one thing. Proving accusations in court under existing laws is another.

“I just don’t know under what grounds we would break them up, let alone how it would be done,” McCareins said. “I caution people against reaching conclusions about it happening.” 

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Allison Matyus
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Allison Matyus is a general news reporter at Digital Trends. She covers any and all tech news, including issues around social…
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