The Wall Street Journal’s May 31 report that the Justice Department is preparing an antitrust investigation against Google is, in a word, yuge. And The Washington Post’s June 1 report that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will be similarly scrutinizing Amazon is equally yuge.
Whatever one thinks of President Donald Trump, superlatives about size are in order with regard to these investigations—if, that is, one or both of them actually turn into lawsuits. And if even one goes forward, it will likely spell the end of Big Tech hegemony. (Or perhaps, we should say, the end of the current era of tech hegemony. After all, technology is a permanent force, as is the human will to power—and so somewhere in the future, the great wheel will turn yet again.)
We might pause to note that the relationship between the White House and the Justice Department is as tight as, well, the relationship between the 45th president and the 85th attorney general. By contrast, the FTC is an independent regulatory agency, although it’s noteworthy that Trump has appointed all five of the sitting commissioners (two of whom are Democrats).
Some will say, of course, that these investigations are the result of Trump’s personal animus towards Big Tech—he has regularly attacked Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos—combined, perhaps, with conservative concerns about Silicon Valley censorship. Indeed, the argument that Trump’s heavy hand improperly affected DOJ decision making was critical to the defense in another antitrust case concerning AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner in 2016, including the latter’s CNN subsidiary—and the feds lost. (Interestingly, as recently as June 3, Trump was still targeting AT&T and CNN.)
Still, these times have an increasingly progressive tenor—Senator Elizabeth Warren, to name just one top Democrat, has called for antitrust action against Google, Amazon, and other companies, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is definitely no fan of Facebook. So it’s probable that the next Democratic presidential administration, whenever that might come, will uphold the antitrust torch, maybe hold it even higher. In other words, the fate of Big Tech will likely be decided by whether bipartisan support for antitrust supersedes partisan feelings of anti-Trump. As a headline in Bloomberg News put it about one of the companies in the crosshairs, “Google Should Be Afraid. Very Afraid.”
Meanwhile, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, an emerging leader of the new breed of populist Republicans, immediately tweeted his support for the looming antitrust action against Google, calling it “very big news, long overdue.” Indeed, back in 2017, when Hawley was his state’s attorney general, he launched an investigation into Google. As he said at the time: “When a company has access to as much consumer information as Google does, it’s my duty to ensure they are using it appropriately. I will not let Missouri consumers and businesses be exploited by industry giants.”
On June 1, in an interview with NBC News, Hawley went even further: “We should have a discussion about the business model of the social media platforms as they have evolved as an ad-supported business model that is pushing addiction and rewarding addiction.”
Addiction, we have learned, is not just a matter of controlled substances entering our bloodstreams; it’s also a matter of computer-controlled images flickering before our eyes.
Here we might pause to note that while Google (technically Alphabet) might seem to be less of a social media company, it includes YouTube, which is all about videos going viral. And when we consider this headline from The New York Times on June 3, “On YouTube’s Digital Playground, an Open Gate for Pedophiles,” we are reminded that “viral,” as in “virus,” is a bad thing, not a good thing. As for Amazon, it’s now just about everywhere, including its product Alexa, the all-knowing and always listening digital deity.
So Hawley seemed to have all the companies in mind when he wondered aloud whether antitrust is a sufficient remedy for the societal ills caused by social media: “If we broke Facebook up into 50 Facebooks who all pursued the same business model, would our lives, our economy, our society be measurably improved? I don’t know that they would.”
This is an interesting argument. Beyond partisan and ideological concerns about bias, censorship, and electoral manipulation—important as those might be, heartfelt on both sides of the aisle—perhaps the greater concern should be social media’s impact on our minds and on our overall commonweal.
Indeed, if the ultimate concern should be about the screen-driven rewiring of our brains, especially as a kind of fuel for reflexive political correctness as a way of shunting off reality—as this author has argued here, here, and here—then any quantitative change in the size of Big Tech looks to be a lot less important than any qualitative change in the way these platforms actually operate.
In fact, with his skepticism of antitrust by itself, Hawley is echoing, as well as updating, the views of one of his heroes, Theodore Roosevelt. In his day, TR was fully aware of the abuses of the “trusts,” and also of the potential remedy of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. And so while he wasn’t opposed to antitrust, he did believe that when abuses were identified, regulation was preferable to litigation. That is, if a company was found to be doing something inimical to the public interest, it was better simply to enact a rule to stop it, as opposed to filing a lawsuit in the hope of breaking up the offender.
In keeping with that spirit, TR established a regulatory Bureau of Corporations within what was then the Department of Commerce and Labor. (This Bureau of Corporations, we might note, was soon to be spun off into the Federal Trade Commission.) In 1907, Roosevelt explained his thinking about regulation: “The design should be to prevent the abuses incident to the creation of unhealthy and improper combinations, instead of waiting until they are in existence and then attempting to destroy them by civil or criminal proceedings.”
TR was focused on the social damage of corporate predation, which he saw as both an injustice and a political fuse that could be ignited, leading to disastrous consequences. Indeed, as early as 1883, he had warned:
There is a strong and growing feeling of indignation among the people at the actions of these great corporations. It is incumbent upon us to see that this feeling takes a lawful shape. …For the sake of protecting honest capital, we ought to punish, if we legally can, the deed of the dishonest wealthy for fear that some day an uprising might come that will overwhelm innocent and guilty alike.
Today, those Rooseveltian social and political concerns are as valid as ever. For instance, every brick-and-mortar retailer, and every Main Street, has an opinion about Amazon. Yet now there’s also the further matter of the psychological impact of social media. Over the past century, concern was expressed—indeed, sometimes still is expressed—over the impact of earlier media innovations, including radio, television, even comic books. And society developed different legal and regulatory responses, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Yet now, we face perhaps the greatest challenge of all: the impact of contemporary tech on human cognition. And if we need perspective on that challenge, we need only recall Google’s original mission statement—on its website to this day—which declares: “From the beginning, our mission has been to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
To many, such Promethean ambition seemed—and still seems—pretty cool, not to mention darn convenient. This admiration helps explain why Google has been given so much political grace, such that, in just two decades, it has grown into an almost $800 billion behemoth.
Still, all things must pass. And so, too, nudged along by Uncle Sam, the golden age of Google’s growth will slip into history’s pages—or at least its PDF—to be remembered alongside the heyday of Standard Oil and the halcyon years of Microsoft.
To be sure, these lawsuits will be no slam dunk, and any resolution could be far in the future. The Reagan Justice Department’s successful breakup of the original incarnation of AT&T way back in 1984 was the result of a decade of litigation.
Yet in the meantime, as a reminder of the stakes at hand, it’s revealing that Google’s most famous corporate saying, “Don’t be evil,” was retired in 2018. The backstory behind its decision to delete might not be a legal question. Still, uncovering the answer would tell us much about the company’s corporate heart.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.