SAN FRANCISCO — When Americans fear the future, they turn to antitrust action.
It happened in the 1890s, when the United States was rapidly moving from a farming economy to an industrialized one. It happened again in the late 1940s, when nuclear war seemed imminent. And it is happening now, as big technology companies work on artificial intelligence that threatens to create a world where human beings are eternal losers.
“There’s an old saying about how history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes, and we’re definitely in a rhyming mode,” said Edward T. O’Donnell, a historian at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “Our worries about our technological future are sending us back to solutions in our industrial past.”
For decades, antitrust regulation has been overwhelmingly focused on the welfare of the consumer. No cost to the consumer, no problem. That opened the door for Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon — which offered digital services that were cheap or free — to become immensely profitable and powerful.
Now a backlash is mounting as renegade scholars try to reverse years of established doctrine that they say does not appropriately take the clout of those companies into account. Economic absolutism is making way for other considerations as antitrust thinking goes back to its roots.
“People might enjoy using the tech platforms but they are also asking, What kind of society do we want?” said Hal Singer, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy. “We’re at one of those antitrust moments.”
The change in antitrust thinking has recently gathered momentum. This month, American regulators indicated they were looking at Big Tech, inspiring a rush of “about time” remarks from politicians across the spectrum. Since then, President Trump, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler have all endorsed in their own ways a heightened scrutiny of the tech behemoths.