Science & Tech

The Conservative Case for Breaking Up Monopolies Such as Google and Facebook

(Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters)
There is a strong Republican antitrust tradition.

When he tweeted these words, Carlson was expressing a sentiment that many on the right have come to embrace. People are concerned, with good reason, that big tech companies discriminate against conservatives. Numerous conservative outlets have had their videos demonetized on Google’s YouTube. PragerU is appealing their loss in a lawsuit over that. A study by The Western Journal showed that a change to Facebook’s algorithm disproportionately harmed conservative sites.

In normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem for government to solve, but social media has come to dominate our national conversation. Large political websites thrive or die based on changes to Facebook and Google algorithms. Everyone from cable news to newspapers to online-only publications create and tweak their content based on how they think it will play on social media. A study has also shown that Google search results can have a frighteningly large impact on elections:

Randomized, controlled experiments conducted with more than 10,000 people from 39 countries suggest that one company alone — Google LLC, which controls about 90 percent of online search in most countries — has likely been determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections in the world for several years now, with increasing impact each year as Internet penetration has grown.

Keep in mind that we’re not talking about individuals or even whole industries here; we’re talking about unaccountable monopolies with detailed information about hundreds of millions of Americans, billions in cash reserves, and the capability to shape what is discussed and what is not discussed in America in a way that no book, radio show, television show or individual has ever had. Just to give you an idea of their dominance, 86 percent of web searches in America go through Google and 75 percent of Americans who are on the Internet are also on Facebook. Google in particular has leveraged its monopoly to swallow up larger and larger shares of the online market. The company controls YouTube, the go-to source for videos on the web. It also has the single most influential ad company online. Gmail is the most popular email provider. Then there’s Google maps, Google Play, Blogger, Android, Google Analytics — it goes on and on and on.

How do you take on monopolies with this sort of dominance and almost infinite levels of cash to buy out any rising competitor? That’s the question conservatives keep asking, and the answer is that realistically, you don’t.

As an individual, you can leave the platforms if you like — but because of their power and control of the national conversation, you are essentially de-platforming yourself by not using them. A message that doesn’t show up on social media might as well be written in a diary.

Could their eventual failings or a technology that sidesteps them somehow make them irrelevant? Sure, but that could take decades if it happens at all.

What about Congress regulating these businesses? They could certainly do that, but given the power and influence of these companies, it’s entirely possible that new regulations might be written to benefit Google and Facebook by making it even tougher for other businesses to compete with them.

However, there is another option to deal with this situation that would reduce the power of these companies and serve the public interest. That is breaking these monopolies up into smaller, more focused entities.

This is something with a long historical pedigree in the United States, including for Republicans. Teddy Roosevelt was responsible for breaking up the Northern Securities Company. William Howard Taft helped bring down Standard Oil Company. Even Ronald Reagan broke up Ma Bell.

Admittedly, breaking up a tech platform is a tricky proposition; people want to use Facebook because other people use Facebook, for example, so the government would probably have little success and win few friends if it tried to force users to divide into Facebook 1 and Facebook 2. What the government can do, however, is separate the core platform from the other products and services these companies provide, thus limiting the amount of power concentrated in a single company’s hands. If Google and Facebook were broken up into multiple companies this way, there would be more competitors in the marketplace, and the companies would be less able to leverage their dominance in one product to give themselves an unfair advantage for others.

Even anti-Google and anti-Facebook articles such as this one rely on Google and Facebook to get the word out.

We’ve had a furious debate in this country about Donald Trump and the power he has as president of the United States. However, arguably the second and third most powerful men in America are Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and Larry Page from Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Neither of them was elected to anything, but we are increasingly living in a culture and a media environment dominated by algorithms written by their companies. And if anything, those voicing privacy concerns have dramatically underplayed the scope of the information these tech giants have access to, including Facebook messages and Google searches.

As former Google employee Tristan Harris has said, “A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today. I don’t know a more urgent problem than this. It’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other.”

If you doubt that, fine, but when was the last time you went a week without using Facebook? Google search? Gmail? YouTube? Instagram (owned by Facebook)? Even anti-Google and anti-Facebook articles such as this one rely on Google and Facebook to get the word out. This is dangerous to our freedom, our culture, and our republic. Moreover, over time the danger is likely to increase, not fade. We can’t alleviate that danger entirely, but breaking these monopolies up would go a long way toward safeguarding the interests of the American people.

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