More than two hours into the Democratic debate in Ohio on Tuesday night, after discussions on healthcare, gun control and foreign policy, the moderators turned to another issue that sharply divided the candidates: is it time to break up Facebook?
The question was framed slightly differently: is Elizabeth Warren right?
Over the last year, the Massachusetts senator has been at the vanguard of the debate about breaking up big tech companies, helping move the issue on to the political agenda. In doing do, she has been drawn into sharp conflict with the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
The question went first to Andrew Yang, a former tech entrepreneur.
“As usual, Senator Warren is 100% right in diagnosing the problem,” he replied, before laying out why he disagreed with her plan to break up the titans of the tech industry – Facebook, Google, Amazon – and regulate them more heavily.
The candidates then grappled with the issue for the first time in a meaningful way during a presidential debate. From breaking up the largest companies, to data privacy legislation, political fundraising in Silicon Valley and whether Donald Trump should be banned from Twitter, the discussion illustrated a deepening disenchantment with big tech – and why Zuckerberg fears a Warren presidency would “suck for us”.
‘They’re begging for regulation’
Zuckerberg’s comments, made to employees, were not meant to be made public. But their leak this month triggered a very public showdown between the fast-rising frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and one of the most powerful executives in the world – a fascinating subplot of the 2020 primary.
“It is the one thing that the CEOs of these companies absolutely hate,” said Sarah Miller, deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, a Washington-based thinktank that advocates against monopolies.
“They’re begging for regulation because they know they game it, they know they can shape it, they know they can avoid it and they know that it will likely inhibit their competitors who won’t have the same resources. But, more than anything, they do not want to be broken up.”
Warren wants to regulate tech platforms as utilities, targeting companies that earn $25bn or more in global annual revenue. She would appoint regulators to unwind “illegal and anticompetitive tech mergers”.
“Today’s big tech companies,” she said, announcing her policy, “have too much power – too much power over our economy, our society and our democracy.”
According to audio recordings leaked to the Verge, Zuckerberg called Warren’s plan an “existential” threat.