One of Elizabeth Warren’s signature 2020 proposals is to break up big tech companies such as Facebook and Google—but this isn’t new territory for the senator. In June 2016, she gave a keynote speechaddressing the threat of consolidation and concentration of the big tech companies on American ideals. “Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy,” she said, urging leaders to “revive antitrust enforcement and . . . fight back against dominant market power and overwhelming political power.”
This is by no means a revolutionary concept. “Competition policy is how you achieve democracy and liberty,” says Barry Lynn, the former director of the Open Markets Program at New America, which hosted Warren’s remarks. “And that has been true from the founding of the United States.” The Sherman Antitrust Act, which became law in 1890, was the original piece of federal antitrust legislation, which the Supreme Court then used as grounds in 1911 to break up Standard Oil. The Clayton Antitrust Act, enacted in 1914, further strengthened those laws, adding stipulations to curb discriminatory pricing and block mergers and acquisitions that significantly reduced market competition.
But Lynn, an ex-journalist who is now executive director of the Open Markets Institute (which he formed after an acrimonious departure from the New America foundation over an argument about corporate power), says the Reagan administration softened antitrust laws, and they’ve remained lax ever since, allowing “capitalists to concentrate their power.” That’s why we see monopolies across all industries, creating “masters of entire domains,” like Walmart, Pfizer, and Monsanto. “So it is not just the tech companies,” he says. “They’re just the problem on steroids.”
The Amazons and Googles of the world have monopolized several markets at a time, and collect behavioral data in a way that the Walmarts were never able to. In July, retailers including Walmart and Target threw their support behind the government’s ongoing investigation of the tech giants. “Big Tech is a really fucking big problem,” Lynn says. “It is the greatest threat to democracy that we have seen in our country since the Civil War.”
Lynn’s work at the Open Markets Institute, a think tank that focuses on anti-monopoly policy, includes advocacy via written articles and papers, debates with economists and antitrust scholars, dialogues with lawyers and filing amicus briefs, engagement with the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, and interacting with legislators and testifying before Congress. “We will talk to Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Socialists,” Lynn says, making clear that this need not be a partisan issue.
He says the Institute has met with more than half of the 2020 Democratic candidates to promote its ideas. Open Markets doesn’t endorse candidates, but Lynn speaks highly of Warren, whose 2016 speech for New America, he says, was “probably the single most important speech in the history of the resurrection of anti-monopolization in the United States.”