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Movement to break up tech gathers pace

Any newly qualified lawyer wondering about where they might like to specialise now has a clear answer: tech anti-trust. Get into that and you’ll never be out of work.

On Friday US Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the top tier of Democratic presidential hopefuls, published a blog post promising to break apart the tech giants if she wins the 2020 election, calling out Google, Facebook and Amazon specifically in a plan that would cover all tech companies with over $90m in sales.

“Healthy competition can solve a lot of problems. The steps I’m proposing today will allow existing big tech companies to keep offering customer-friendly services, while promoting competition, stimulating innovation in the tech sector, and ensuring that America continues to lead the world in producing cutting-edge tech companies. It’s how we protect the future of the Internet,” she wrote.

Over the weekend Democratic big wig Robert Reich gave his support to the plan. Plenty of others will weigh in too, and this idea isn’t confined to the left of the political spectrum. Before Warren’s post Republican Senator Josh Hawley too came out against the big tech companies, and there’s plenty of conservative intellectual ballast for breaking them up. This is one of the rare issues that genuinely does cut across party lines. For sure each side came to the conclusion from many different starting points, but they are increasingly arriving at the same destination - more regulation and even break-ups.

There’s an old saying that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, and if you’ve read my thoughts on the similarities between today’s tech giants and early days of the oil industry, this increasing government attention and potential regulation is not surprising in the least. As I say in the piece, there’s always the temptation to stretch analogies too far, so I’m not going to see every development in the tech industry as having an analog in its oil predecessor, but this one is pretty hard to avoid.

It’s highly unlikely Elizabeth Warren’s plan will turn into reality. Such a major change takes considerable time to grow and evolve into something that has any chance of becoming actual policy. And even if it does, there’s no guarantee that any anti-trust actions by the US government would win the inevitable ensuing mammoth legal fights as the targeted companies throw absolutely everything they have at stopping such an existential threat. As I said at the start, lots and lots of future work for a multitude of lawyers.

However that doesn’t mean this shift in the political discourse doesn’t matter. Far from it. After all not many issues unite right and left now. Like with the oil industry before it, we’re seeing growing public and political unease with many actions and behaviours of our tech titans which means more and more policy proposals like Warren’s. Eventually some of them will actually make it.

Not least of all around data. As I wrote last week, Mark Zuckerberg’s blog on Facebook’s privacy-driven future didn’t touch upon the issue of whose data is it anyway.

Elizabeth Warren did: “We must give people more control over how their personal information is collected, shared, and sold — and do it in a way that doesn’t lock in massive competitive advantages for the companies that already have a ton of our data.”

It’s all in that last pronoun. “Our”. Ours. Not theirs. Politicians are going to be making that point a lot more often from now on.

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