MONOPOLIES ARE GOOD—so long as they can be challenged, however remote the possibility. That belief has long held sway at the University of Chicago, a bastion of free-market thinking, which helped make the word “antitrust” lose most of its meaning in America, not least with respect to technology. “Punishing Google for being a successful competitor would stifle innovation and dynamic competition,” concluded the late Robert Bork, long the Chicago school’s leading antitrust expert, in a paper published in 2012 (commissioned by Google, which needed ammunition to defend itself in an antitrust investigation at the time).
Now this monopoly of thought is itself being disrupted from within. In April, for the second time in as many years, Booth, the university’s business school, invited leading antitrust thinkers to discuss monopolies, this time in tech. And many came, from representatives of the old Chicago school, such as Dennis Carlton, to tech’s most ardent foes, such as Barry Lynn and Matt Stoller of the Open Markets Institute, a think-tank. Ideas about what should be done were disparate, including such proposals as creating property rights for data and treating social media as a public-health problem because of their addictive qualities. In his winding-up speech Luigi Zingales, one of the organisers, proposed the creation of an interdisciplinary committee for internet-platform regulation. If it is ever convened, what should it focus on?
Information technology comes in cycles, each giving rise to a new computing platform. In the current cycle, the key component—or the next platform—is data. Facebook may have started as a social network, Google as a search engine and Microsoft as a maker of operating systems and other software. But today they all deal in data, not least to target advertisements. And now the firms are quickly becoming fully fledged data distilleries: they suck up as much digital information as they can, crunch it in vast data centres and turn it into artificial-intelligence services. At the three firms’ annual developer conferences in early May, AI was everywhere. New services unveiled included one by Microsoft to interpret people’s offline movements and one by Google which is able to call hair salons and other local businesses to make appointments.