On Wednesday, the House antitrust subcommittee will hear testimony from the CEOs of the Big Four tech firms: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Aside from possibly bringing together more wealth than ever before assembled in a congressional hearing, the event marks a triumph for a nascent movement of antitrust scholars who have revived the debate about concentrated economic power in the United States. Members of Congress will be able to detail how large tech platforms abuse their position to invade user privacy, muscle out or buy up competitors, and gouge suppliers and partners—behaviors that ultimately damage innovation and exacerbate inequality.
These problems have only grown worse with the coronavirus pandemic, as smaller businesses succumb to the economic damage, and changing patterns in teleworking and retail accelerate in ways that make Americans more reliant on technologies produced by a few firms. Shares in the Big Four, along with Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla, added $291 billion in market value in just one day last week. The dangers of Big Tech domination are more profound now than they were even a few months ago.
But the hearing may also have the unintended consequence of associating the problem of economic concentration with Big Tech alone. The truth is that, even if Congress somehow decreed the breakup of all four tech giants, the U.S. would still have an astounding number of industries controlled by a tiny number of firms. That’s because the structure of modern capitalism favors companies that operate at once-unimaginable scale, in the absence of a government will to prevent monopolies from forming.