November 11, 2019
Many public figures have called for the breakup of leading technology companies, but the European Commission’s head of competition Margrethe Vestager is not one of them. She stated that breaking up such companies should be a remedy if it’s “the only solution to [their] illegal behavior.” “We don’t have that kind of case now,” she said, although she didn’t exclude a future possibility. In the U.S., conservatives and libertarians, who often oppose antitrust measures, are also pushing back against the move to break up Big Tech.
VentureBeat reports that Vestager has been a feared and harsh critic of Silicon Valley, levying three antitrust fines against Google, for example. But, just as her term came to an end, the new European Commission reappointed her to a five-year term “and expanded her portfolio to more broadly include technology policy, in addition to antitrust.”
But, to the surprise of many, she has not called for the breakup of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Instead, in addition to “applaud[ing] the U.S. for finally waking up to the need for regulation and enforcement,” she noted that there is no model for breaking up such gigantic companies. “I am much more in the line of thinking that when you become that big, you get a special responsibility,” she said, adding that these companies’ dominance was also a threat to the rise of “many interesting [smaller] companies.”
“Part of my mission is that we build trust in technology by making sure that we can reach the potential,” she said. She stressed that real-world values should be implemented in the online world, to avoid the risk of undermining democracy, and called on Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to address abuse on that platform. With her new role, Vestager will also “be responsible for making regulations around artificial intelligence,” which she says has great potential to solve problems, but will be tricky to regulate.
The New York Times reports that a “well-funded” coalition of conservatives and libertarians including the Koch political network and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) are opposing efforts to break up Big Tech. “These conservatives have largely dominated antitrust law for decades, leading to few breakups of big companies or blocked mergers,” notes NYT.
Antitrust arguments regarding Big Tech have become increasingly bipartisan, but “the power and influence” of this deeply conservative group has “never been tested like this.” To their argument that existing laws are sufficient and simply need to be enforced correctly, Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim agreed that “the antitrust laws are flexible … [and should be] vigorously enforced.”
Others say existing laws should be modified — or propose a “solution somewhere in between.” “What has happened is the spectrum has stretched a bit,” said American Antitrust Institute president Diana Moss.
Some in this conservative bloc believe that privacy is the real issue and that antitrust laws don’t solve a problem “better suited to new data regulations.” Others, such as the University of Michigan Law School professor Daniel Crane, urge the parties to slow down. Facebook and Google “have financed a slate of groups that support current antitrust law,” and Senator Lee has “led the defense of existing antitrust law” on Capitol Hill.