In 1890 an Ohio senator named John Sherman delivered a speech from the Senate floor decrying the dangers of monopoly. Trusts—that era’s version of megacorporations—had grown too large and ungovernable, due to their voracious appetite for acquisitions. The United States had been founded a century earlier in opposition to monarchical rule, but the steady rise of consolidated industry threatened to create an emperor in new clothes. “The law of selfishness, uncontrolled by competition, compels it to disregard the interest of the consumer,” Sherman said of trusts. “If the concentrated powers of this combination are entrusted to a single man, it is a kingly prerogative, inconsistent with our form of government.”
This call to action led to the passing of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the law that would be used to dismantle Standard Oil, split up Ma Bell, and cow Microsoft at the peak of its corporate villainy. But the kingly prerogative Sherman spoke of seems to be intrinsic to every era: Mark Zuckerberg, who’s obsessed with the Roman emperor Augustus, has spent the last two years trying to square his vision for a Facebook-controlled digital universe with mounting evidence that his platform is helping to destabilize the world, not harmonize it. Amazon just proved that it could make more than 200 cities bow to its whims in the hopes that the company would spark economic growth in a place less prosperous than the tech hubs of the West Coast. And Alphabet’s CEO has stayed cloistered on his private Caribbean island as controversies roil the company that coined the phrase “Don’t be evil.” There is a sense that tech’s influence on society has become both calamitous and intractable this decade.
That’s why it’s time, in the eyes of Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, to dust off Sherman’s law and take a scalpel to some of the world’s most valuable companies. In his new book, The Curse of Bigness, Wu traces the history of antitrust law in America, from the trustbusting days of Theodore Roosevelt, to the antimerger fervor of the Kennedy administration, to the rise of the Chicago school of economic thought, which holds that companies that don’t endanger consumer welfare (typically by raising prices) can grow as large as they like. Wu says this latest era has allowed too many companies to become overly large and exploitative, not only in tech but also in airlines, pharmaceuticals, and even beer.
Wu is a former senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission and member of President Obama’s National Economic Council. In the last great battle over the shape of the internet, he coined the term net neutrality and helped mobilize a political movement against the corporatization of the online world. Wu spoke with The Ringer about how “breakup” came to be considered a dirty word, why Facebook is the easiest target for dissolution, and whether the public can be convinced to care about a dry concept like antitrust law. This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
There’s a lot of talk today about breaking up the tech giants or regulating them in some way. Which of those remedies would be more effective?
I think both is the right answer. The problem with one or the other is if you leave [the tech giants with] all their power and just regulate them, there’s a danger that they’ll either ignore the regulations because they’re powerful enough to do so, or that you’ll insulate the company permanently as a monopoly. I’m not in love with the regulate-only approach.
In the book you talk a lot about how there’s a political dimension to monopoly, and how that’s trended toward fascism in the past. Right now we see that political ideology becoming popular in the United States. Do you see restoring competition as a way of somehow restoring democracy as well?
I do. I think they’re closely linked. There’s a long association in monopoly-dominated economies with authoritarian regimes, even totalitarian regimes. There’s an easy cooperation between private and public power. Democracy, on some level, is about accountability. When firms are beyond a certain size, they’re not accountable to nearly anyone—certainly not to their customers—and they start to become resistant to government. If you take a big company and say you’re going to fine it a billion dollars, that’s pocket change. When that starts being the case, you have unaccountability, which is inconsistent with democracy.
Do you think we’re at that stage now with any of these companies, in terms of being resistant to government?
If you think about Facebook, they’ve been fined and under consent decree from the Federal Trade Commission for privacy abuses as early as 2012. But as far I can tell there’s nothing [they’ve done] to change their behavior. So I think we are facing a point where you have to ask whether they are of such a size that ordinary regulation doesn’t seem to do anything.
I don’t know if you saw the New York Times article [about how Facebook has responded to recent scandals, published November 14]. One of the interesting parts of that article was the discussion of [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer and his influence in trying to prevent too much scrutiny of Facebook. When companies get powerful enough to have some real influence over Congress, the prospect of passing laws that would meaningfully regulate them in the public interest becomes a different kind of question. So I think the last resort is the breakup to reduce their power.
Why do you single out Facebook as the company that’s most ripe to be broken up?
I think companies like Google and Amazon have at least plausible stories about why they need to be one big company. With Facebook it’s just so obvious that they engaged in a series of illegal mergers, and so obvious that you could break off Instagram and WhatsApp and renew some competition in that space. The case for doing it seems overwhelming. I focus on [Facebook] because it’s the easiest case from a legal perspective. But I also think that Google and Amazon have grown to alarming levels of power and concentration. The remedies might be harder, but we may have to start thinking about limiting their influence over the industries adjacent to them.
Why do you think the idea of a breakup has come to be seen as such a radical solution to these problems?
It’s 40 years of propaganda. In American politics, the way you nullify laws is you define their enforcement as radical. This is part of the U.S. code. It’s frankly an American tradition to break up firms, but there’s been a 40-year campaign to define it as off limits, unthinkable, when it used to be routine and expected. You can pretty much guess why that campaign has been underway. Obviously businesses don’t like to be broken up.
Just to give some credit to the other side, there were people in the ’60s who felt that the breakup movements went too far. There are certainly times the government went a little too far. But basically there’s been a campaign to vilify the antitrust laws.
The Obama administration declined to pursue an antitrust case against Google and also green-lit the big Facebook mergers that have made the company so powerful today. Do you think more could have been done during those years?
I think the [Obama] administration had an extremely positive view of tech — almost a can-do-no-harm view. That influenced things a little bit. I think there was also an excessive fear of making mistakes. Oh, it’s a new industry, they’re doing great stuff. We don’t want to mess it up. But yes, I think they should have filed suit against Google, and I think they should have blocked the mergers.
The problem was that Washington was still thinking about tech the way it was in the early 2000s: a new, infant industry struggling to make its way in the world. So [the administration] didn’t want to crush it when it was young. But they were a little out of date.
In the book you describe Facebook’s blanket copying of Snapchat’s features as anticompetitive. When would behavior like that rise to the level of being an antitrust violation?
When you copy the features of your rival and then use your monopoly or market power to force people to work with the copy instead of the original. No one ever investigated Facebook, but based on my look at things, I would be concerned that Facebook not only copied Snap’s features, but used its own resources to direct people, make sure that people used the copies, and in that way put a real cap on the growth of Snap as a competitor. I think that’s what actionable copying looks like.
You coined the term net neutrality and helped people understand what that was, prompting plenty of political mobilization around it earlier in the decade. How do you get people to mobilize around breaking up monopolies, a cause that some could find more boring?
Compared to net neutrality, antitrust has a much stronger history of political mobilization. There was actually an antitrust party at one point in the United States. I think antimonopoly is a powerful political calling card and speaks to people’s desire for a sense of economic control over their own lives. There are concerns about the humanity of big business and corporations that get too large. I think it depends on whether you’re mobilizing around Section II of the Sherman Act, which feels like a challenging proposition, or a renewed antimonopoly movement.
Do you think it’s hard to get people thinking critically of companies like Google, which was cast as a hero in the net neutrality fight?
This is one of the reasons I think Facebook is an appropriate [breakup] target in the tech area. I think Facebook demonstrates some of the curse of bigness. They have, through their size and practices, had a dangerous effect on American democracy. I don’t think that’s hard to mobilize people against. I think people want more choices in social networking. So many people would love a cleaner, more ethical alternative.
I also don’t think it’s hard to mobilize people in the direction of trying to break up the airline industry a little more, or take a harder line on pharmaceuticals. These are all areas where people are champing at the bit for the government to do more, and it doesn’t.
Do you feel like the tech giants have spent up their good will? I think there was a time when a company like Comcast would have been much more derided than a company like Facebook.
I think we’re in a backlash against tech. There are still good companies, and many do good things. But I think [this wave of backlash] is a very healthy thing, frankly. These companies need to learn that they are not above public opinion, not above the law. What’s that Marvel comics quote? “With great power comes great responsibility.”
In the book you mention how it took decades for the Chicago school of thought to become a rigid, unimpeachable framework. Today, there’s still a lot of skepticism surrounding your ideas. The legal scholar Lina Khan’s critique of Amazon’s power is often dismissed as “hipster antitrust.” How long do you think it could take for things to shift legally?
Big things have small beginnings. The media’s starting to pick up on [changes in antitrust legal theory], but I think it’s been brewing for a few years, since the end of the Obama administration. The Chicago school marinated in academia for a while, but when it hit, it went fast, and it came with a change in administration. So I think leading into the next presidential election, this could be something that, with a different president and different priorities, could move very quickly.
Do you see similarities between Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos and original antitrust targets J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller?
I think the human will to power does not change or go away. There is a certain class of individuals who have an aspiration for empire baked into their personality. The question is how far they will go. There are certain personality types that recur throughout history. Is Mark Zuckerberg exactly like Rockefeller? That’s for historians to debate. But that will to empire is certainly a timeless characteristic.
Do you see a threat on the horizon that isn’t being taken seriously enough yet, in terms of the monopoly power these companies have? Many people didn’t take disinformation on Facebook seriously until after the 2016 election.
Something that people are not paying enough attention to is the pervasive influence of Alexa and other personal assistants in every aspect of our lives. I regard that as a truly alarming development. I sincerely wonder if that is proceeding apace in a way we’re not really even thinking about. You know the way people just sort of willy-nilly gave Facebook all their data? That turned out not to be the best idea. I think installing listening devices in all our homes which are connected to a network that is potentially monitoring us, potentially knowing everything that we do, is a form of insanity that we’re going to regret later.
What is the most effective course of action for readers who want to try to stop the power of monopoly?
Two things. One is to think hard about alternatives. It’s not easy, but you could think about quitting Facebook or trying a different social network. And the other thing is voting for candidates who are willing to stand up against excessive private power and excessive industry concentration, and who are sincere about it. Donald Trump actually campaigned as an anticorporate candidate. I don’t think he was the real deal, but channel that energy into people who are serious about this. It’s hard because a lot of people talk a good talk but don’t do anything. So I think conscientious voting is important, but you have to vote for the real deal.