Instead of Breaking Them Up, Let’s Force “The Four” to Share.

Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook won’t like it. But our economy would soar.

Social conversations about difficult and complex topics have arcs — they tend to start scattered, with many threads and potential paths, then resolve over time toward consensus. This consensus differs based on groups within society — Fox News aficionados will cluster one way, NPR devotees another. Regardless of the group, such consensus then becomes presumption — and once a group of people presume, they fail to explore potentially difficult or presumably impossible alternative solutions.

This is often a good thing — an efficient way to get to an answer. But it can also mean we fail to imagine a better solution, because our own biases are obstructing a more elegant path forward.

This is my sense of the current conversation around the impact of what Professor Scott Galloway has named “The Four” — the largest and most powerful American companies in technology (they are Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, for those just returning from a ten-year nap). Over the past year or so, the conversation around technology has become one of “something must be done.” Tech was too powerful, it consumed too much of our data and too much of our economic growth. Europe passed GDPR, Congress held ineffectual hearings, Facebook kept screwing up, Google failed to show up…it was all of a piece.

The conversation evolved into a debate about various remedies, and recently, it’s resolved into a pretty consistent consensus, at least amongst a certain class of tech observers: These companies need to be broken up. Antitrust, many now claim, is the best remedy for the market dominance these companies have amassed.

It’s a seductive response, with seductive historical precedent. In the 1970s and 80s, antitrust broke up AT&T, ultimately paving the way for the Internet to flourish. In the 90s, antitrust provided the framework for the government’s case against Microsoft, opening the door for new companies like Google and Facebook to dominate the next version of the Internet. Why wouldn’t antitrust regulation usher in #Internet3? Imagine a world where YouTube, Instagram, and Amazon Web Services are all separate companies. Would not that world be better?

Perhaps. I’m not well read enough in antitrust law to argue one way or the other, but I know that antitrust turns on the idea of consumer harm (usually measured in terms of price), and there’s a strong argument to be made that a free service like Google or Facebook can’t possibly cause consumer harm. Then again, there are many who argue that data is in fact currency, and The Four have essentially monopolized a class of that currency.

But even as I stare at the antitrust remedy, another solution keeps poking at me, one that on its face seems quite elegant and rather unexplored. (Read more on our open web site here.)