A hot-button topic leading into the 2020 election is whether big tech companies such as Google and Facebook should be split up. Candidates like Elizabeth Warren have aggressive plans to divide the conquerors in tech, but some feel it’s a lost cause.
At the core of the debate is how big tech companies act, which is something Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith – as well as the American Bar Association – call “Hipster Antitrust.” The concept here is the term “antitrust” no longer directly references anti-competitive business practices, but can (or maybe should) encompass how a company behaves with its own products.
A good example is YouTube, which is fertile ground for hate speech and various other bad human interactions. At the Code Conference this week, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki underscored how big tech companies are struggling to figure out what “harassment” is:
When we look at harassment there are a number of things we look at. First, we look at the context. Was this video a one-hour political video that had, say, a racial slur in it? There are different kinds of videos. We looked at the context, and that’s really important. We also looked to see if it’s a public figure and if it’s malicious with the intent of harassment. Right now, malicious is a high bar for us.
Twitter Product Lead Keyvon Beykpour backs that idea up. “A lot of what people consider abusive on the service doesn’t actually violate our policies,” he said at the conference. Meanwhile, the new boss at Instagram, Adam Mosseri, offered his (expected) take on Instagram being split from Facebook:
Personally, if we split it off, it might make a lot of my life easier, and it would probably be beneficial for me as an individual. But I just think it’s a terrible idea. If you’re trying to solve election integrity, if you’re trying to approach content issues like hate speech, and you split us off, it would just make it exponentially more difficult — particularly for us at Instagram — to keep us safe.
Mosseri’s reasoning for his stance: There are more people working on safety issues at Facebook than there are working on all of Instagram.
So what happens if this “hipster antitrust” movement gets momentum, and big tech companies face being broken up? Will it actually solve our problems? “I expect consumers will face the same issues even if these large tech giants are broken up,” Francis Dinha, CEO of OpenVPN, tells Dice.
Dinha believes data privacy is another core issue: “Consumer data privacy needs to be a priority for a company, no matter the size. The same problems consumers have faced won’t simply go away because the companies are broken apart unless the newly formed smaller corporations make data protection and privacy a core value.”
But Dinha says big tech is not the only problem; those companies just set the tone:
This is an issue with companies across the board, not just the large tech corporations. Unless there are meaningful regulations in place that companies are forced to follow, nothing will change. We need to keep in mind that it’s the large companies that have the means and resources to comply with any potential regulations. Smaller companies would likely struggle with implementation.
It is certainly possible [splitting up big tech companies] could mean more privacy for consumers, but it’s unlikely. The damage around online privacy has been done and happening for quite some time. I would expect some small concessions but don’t think we’ll see any major or substantive changes.
There are three Dice surveys we can reference to see how those in tech feel about the subject. First, tech professionals simply do not trust Facebook; 86 percent report they have absolutely no trust in the company.
In a separate study, 44.2 percent of tech professionals want all big tech companies split up; 24.2 percent don’t agree with splitting tech companies up, while 13.3 percent feel Facebook should be dismantled while other giants such as Google and Amazon are left alone.
A third study shows 37 percent of tech professionals want better privacy laws, not regulation or smashing big tech companies apart; 26 percent of respondents to this survey say tech should be “totally regulated,” while 17 percent say companies such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Amazon should be fined to the hilt instead of regulated or split up.
It’s hard to see the government cowing to any “hipster antitrust” sentiment to actually divide these large firms, but it’s easy to see how the actions of companies such as Facebook (and the subsequent public reaction) could result in tighter privacy laws passed. Though topics such as hate speech and data privacy are unique and complicated, expect sweeping laws that address all the issues big tech firms have let languish in their pursuit of advertising dollars.