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By Sam Thielman, editor, Tow Center for Digital Journalism
In running for president, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., seemingly wants to be to Google what Teddy Roosevelt was to Standard Oil. She has proposed unwinding specific mergers that have led to anti-competitive and even monopolistic behavior — Facebook and Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, Amazon and Whole Foods, Google and the ad network DoubleClick, among others.
Rhetorically, the proposal is flawless: Warren repeatedly invokes competitive markets — which are sacred to conservatives — as her rationale for wanting stiffer regulations, and offers a litany of harms that Facebook, Google and Amazon have caused for the country and municipalities that generously house them. Her pitch is pithy, well-argued and all but guaranteed to chase away the already-skeptical big-money wing of the Democratic party.
It’s also a policy proposal so interesting that it has overwhelmed the normal nitpicking criticism of her public persona, at least temporarily. (I honestly can’t remember the last time that happened, especially to a woman.)
And the details of the proposal are wonky and clever, posted for anyone to read on Medium, with components that can be divorced from one another and adopted as independent initiatives, as well as those gigantically ambitious suggestions right at the top.
Among the other details of the plan is her suggestion that “[c]ompanies with an annual global revenue of $25 billion or more and that offer to the public an online marketplace, an exchange, or a platform for connecting third parties would be designated as ‘platform utilities,’” and subject to significant data-sharing and data privacy restrictions that might make their current business models untenable. Essentially, if a tech company has a public-facing “store,” under the Warren plan, it would suddenly be subject to a host of new, federally-mandated rules as soon as it broke the $25 billion barrier to, as she said, make sure that, “Small businesses would have a fair shot to sell their products on Amazon without the fear of Amazon pushing them out of business.”
It’s a straightforwardly radical suggestion — especially given the laissez-faire way the last several administrations have allowed tech companies to evolve — but it is also easily achievable within our current regulatory framework and has plenty of distinguished precedent.
But a good argument alone has not been enough to convince most people in Warren’s position; the topic of tech industry regulation has proven a depressingly accurate test for determining which politicians have the strength of their convictions, and which can be persuaded by lobbyists and large campaign contributions to gently bend their ideals.
Despite companies subverting consumer protections with anti-competitive mergers and ignoring what little regulation does exist at every turn, Democrats — who receive the vast majority of donations from employees of and PACs related to these firms — have done little beyond holding hearings and proposing weak bills, into the negotiations over which the tech companies try to insert themselves. And, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Republican congressmen and senators like Steve King and John Kennedy openly threaten tech CEOs with regulation as punishment for their perceived unfriendliness to conservative points of view — though Republicans publicly deplore regulation on and off the campaign trail.
Warren’s proposal, however, points to deeper problems than just inaction, ineffectiveness and posturing among her colleagues in the Senate. The executive branch — as Warren knows well — has the power to rein in cash-spewing monopolies more effectively than any other branch of government. Expensive lawyers can win court cases and donors can twist the arms of legislators, but the president appoints the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Securities and Exchange Commission and prominent officials at the Justice and Treasury Departments.
Of Donald Trump’s many betrayals of his constituents he promised to protect by “draining the swamp,” the most serious may be his population of these jobs with lobbyists, sycophants, crooks and other of the swamp’s many denizens. Warren, were she to win the presidential race in 2020, could staff them with people who would bring oligarchs and technocrats to heel, pursue trials of companies who flout regulations rather than settlements and wouldn’t dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which she helped create) the way Trump’s director, Mick Mulvaney, did.
Basic fairness dictates that, at this point, tech companies should be informed that they can’t vampirize the society that houses them, bleeding it dry of personal information, money and workers’ lives. This morning saw a report in the Daily Beast of nearly 200 calls to 911 from Amazon warehouses, many of them from suicidal workers; if our government can’t force the richest man in the world to ensure working conditions that don’t necessitate emergency psychiatric interventions by trained medical personnel, what good is it?
Warren may not be president — she may not even win the primary — but she has distinguished herself considerably by all-but daring powerful lobbyists to pour cash into her opponents’ war chests. She’s issued an understandable a proposal on a complicated industry that ought to be broadly popular with a public that loves net neutrality and doesn’t trust tech companies.
Plus, the proposal shows a confounding faith in human nature, given the events of the last two years. Here’s hoping she’s right to have it; it’s increasingly clear that the tech companies’ profits rely on a fundamentally different view of humanity.