In early October, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign released a political ad that opens with leaked audio of Facebook Inc. (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking about how the company would “go to the mat and fight” if Warren is elected president in 2020 and tries to break up the firm. The clip, a part of two hours of audio from employee meetings held in July obtained by The Verge, was used to demonstrate how she has Big Tech rattled.
Warren believes weak antitrust enforcement in the U.S. has helped big technology companies cement their dominance and hurt competition and innovation in the sector. According to her, the lack of choices for consumers has allowed these tech giants to neglect privacy and user experience. Here’s how she plans to defang the FAANGs and even the playing field.
Among Warren’s 48 plans, is the “How we can break up Big Tech” plan. According to her, companies acquire smaller rivals and use their proprietary online marketplaces to unfairly limit competition. Her plan to fix this consists of two main parts and some goals for the future:
Online Marketplaces = Platform Utilities
Warren wants to pass legislation that requires online marketplaces run by companies with annual global revenue above $90 million to be designated as “platform utilities.” Companies with annual global revenue above $25 billion will not be allowed to own platform utilities and participants on it at the same time. In other words, companies will not be able to sell services on a public marketplace they own and control. Platform utilities will have to treat all users fairly and equally. If sued and found guilty of violating the neutrality requirement, they would have to pay a fine equal to 5% of their annual revenue.
Warren will also appoint federal regulators who will reverse “illegal” and “anti-competitive” mergers.
Her three goals are to give people more control over how their personal data is collected, shared, and sold, help news outlets and artists keep more of the value their content generates, and ensure that no foreign power uses social media to influence U.S. elections.
What the Plan Means for the FAANGs
Facebook: Under Warren’s plan, Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram and 2014 acquisition of WhatsApp would be reversed, something Zuckerberg called an “existential” threat. “Facebook would face real pressure from Instagram and WhatsApp to improve the user experience and protect our privacy,” says Warren’s campaign website.
Seventy percent of U.S. adults and 51% of U.S. teens use Facebook, according to Pew Research. However, 70% of U.S. teens use Instagram, the platform Facebook is using to compete with the likes of Snap Inc. and TikTok. The company will be depending on Instagram to drive ad revenue in the coming years.
Amazon: Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) would not be allowed to sell its own products alongside third-party sellers on Amazon.com, if Warren’s legislation is passed. Its privately-owned brands, like AmazonBasics, would have to be spun off or shuttered. Its mergers with Whole Foods (2017) and Zappos (2009) would also be unwound.
Most of the hundreds of brands Amazon owns haven’t had too much success, but Oweise Khazi, senior principal at Gartner L2, told Retail Dive that Amazon is “playing the long game” and will be studying the massive amount of data it has access to.
Apple: Apple Inc. (AAPL) is not among the companies mentioned on Warren’s official campaign website, but the AppStore would also qualify as a platform utility. This means Apple would not be able to sell its own applications, like Apple Music and Apple News, on the platform. “It’s got to be one or the other,” said Warren when asked about it by The Verge. “Either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time.” This would come in the way Apple’s Services business ambitions.
Netflix: Netflix Inc. (NFLX) faces little regulatory risk at this point. In March 2019, BMO Capital Markets made Netflix its top technology stock instead of Amazon for this reason, according to CNBC. The debate about whether the company is a budding monopoly with its massive original content budget is still ongoing.
Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL): Google’s Ad Exchange and Google Search are both platform utilities under the proposed law and would need to be spun off. Alternatively, Google would have to stop including its own comparison shopping service, restaurant ratings etc. in search results, because it would be competing with other companies like Yelp, and separate its business from Ad Exchange. Its acquisitions of Waze, Nest and DoubleClick would also be unwound.
How Did the Movement Begin?
Elizabeth Warren hasn’t been talking about tech monopolies for nearly as long as she’s been talking about breaking up big banks. Her viral video from the second Code Conference in 2015 doesn’t show her mention concentration in Silicon Valley. A year later, however, during a keynote speech at think tank New America’s forum on monopolies, Warren criticized tech giants for “snuffing out competition” for the first time, and she made headlines. She said, “Google, Apple and Amazon have created disruptive technologies that changed the world and every day they deliver enormous value. They deserve to be highly profitable and successful. But the opportunity to compete must remain open for new entrants and smaller competitors who want their chance to change the world again.” She provided examples, like Amazon steering consumers to books it published, Apple’s treatment of rival music streaming companies like Spotify and Google giving preferential treatment to its products in its search engine. Her speech is still available to read online.
But where did the inspiration come from? The New Yorker reported that in early 2016 Warren met with New America’s Open Markets program head, Barry Lynn, and one of its legal fellows Lina Khan. They talked about the dominance of certain conglomerates, and Khan and Lynn recommended breaking up some of these giant companies. (Open Markets later split from New America after the former criticized Google, one of the think tank’s key funders.)
Unlike the European Union, U.S. antitrust activity has shrunk since the 1970s, and Warren is contributing to its resurgence in a huge way. At the time of her speech, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias called her proposal to increase antitrust scrutiny on the technology sector “politically riskier than what Obama has done” and a “decisive break with a generation-long consensus that antitrust policy should be closely linked to consumer welfare rather than simply intervening in companies’ fights with each other.”
In October 2016, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton added “A new commitment to promote competition, address excessive concentration and the abuse of economic power, and reinvigorating antitrust laws and enforcement” to her list of campaign goals. In December, The New York Times ran an op-ed titled “Forget AT&T. The Real Monopolies Are Google and Facebook.” It was the year Big Tech officially became one of the biggest bipartisan targets.