In October 2016, then-President Barack Obama hosted a miniature version of the blowout tech conference South by Southwest, which the White House called South by South Lawn. Obama, as The New York Times put it at the time, had “brought Silicon Valley to Washington.” He even hinted that if he hadn’t been president, he might have become a venture capitalist. “The conversations I have with Silicon Valley and with venture capital pull together my interests in science and organization in a way I find really satisfying,” he said.
My, how times change! Most American politicians would not be caught consorting so openly with the technology industry these days. And now that Big Tech lacks top cover, government agencies are moving in. According to new reports, Google and Apple face deeper investigation by the Department of Justice, while the Federal Trade Commission takes on Amazon and Facebook.
At a broad ideological level, two things have happened. First, the idea of cyberspace, a transnational, individualistic, largely unregulated, and free place that was not exactly located in any governmental domain, has completely collapsed. Second, the mythology of tech as the carrier of progress has imploded, just as it did for the robber barons of the late 19th century, ushering in the trust-busting era. While Big Tech companies try to establish a new reason for their privileged treatment and existence (hint: screaming “CHINA!”), they are vulnerable to attacks on their business practices that suddenly make sense.
Antitrust Theoreticians: The version of antitrust regulations that emerged in the 20th century held that consumer prices had to rise in order for monopolistic conditions to cause harm. That framing protected Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook, which give away their products to users. How can there be consumer harm if consumers are paying $0.00? But a new wave of antitrust scholars, now centered at the Open Markets Institute, has argued that this view is outdated because free services can still be harmful to societies. It’s opened the door to new attacks on the market power of Big Tech, and it’s already gained adherents.