AUSTIN – People used to go the SXSW conference here to celebrate technology’s possibilities. More recently, they switched to raising concerns over its risks. This year, the conversation has moved on to what sort of hammer to bring down on tech giants, and who should swing it.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.), having unveiled her far-reaching plan to break up Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google on Friday, defended that proposal in a talk here Saturday.
“The monopolists will make fewer monopoly profits. Boo-hoo,” she told Time editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas. Warren described the tech giants as the heirs of 19th-century railroads that used their control of infrastructure to muscle their way into adjacent markets.
“Markets create opportunities,” Warren said. “But markets have to have rules. They have to have a cop on the beat. Markets without rules are theft.”
Sunday afternoon, tech investor Roger McNamee endorsed Warren’s breakup ideas and suggested that tech companies execute a breakup first, saying he’d suggested a year ago that Google spin off YouTube.
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McNamee ended his talk by saying he still hoped that the leadership at these companies would elect to change course: “I believe they are one good night’s sleep away from the epiphany.” But after hearing him denounce these same companies for the same hour, that optimism sounded exceedingly fragile.
Matt Rivitz, co-creator of Sleeping Giants – a Twitter campaign to persuade companies to pull their ads from sites and shows marked by open bigotry – endorsed breaking up tech giants if the alternative would be regulatory regimes that the Trump administration could abuse.
“Steve Bannon wants to regulate social media like a utility, and I think that’s a ridiculous concept,” he said of President Trump’s former advisor during a Monday afternoon panel. “I think breaking them up in some ways is not a bad thing.”
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But while other SXSW speakers questioned Warren’s breakup idea, nobody was willing to suggest that Web and social platforms should retain their current, loose oversight.
European Union competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager called forced breakups “a very last resort” in a Sunday morning panel. “Breaking up the company is a very, very serious, far-reaching thing to do,” she said.
Vestager said she preferred to compel change through regulations. She noted that thanks to pressure from the EU, “we see Google making a number of changes for competition to be restored,” but she did not elaborate on those.
Monday afternoon, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom declined to endorse a split-up of Facebook, which bought that photo-sharing app for $1 billion in 2012. He called Warren’s proposal “not nuanced enough” and asked “What consumer was damaged because Instagram grew to the size that it did?”
But he suggested that regulation could make plenty of sense when tech companies abuse their market power: “If you want to fix economic issues, there are ways of doing that.”
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.
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