Simple answers, Strictly typed

What it really means to "break up big tech"

The collision of tech and politics voiced in Warren’s antitrust campaign masks an absurdly complicated task in four deceptively simple words: break up big tech. Her real plan is twofold: to unwind prior mergers and force the divestiture of large tech platforms. The moves Warren proposes are based on the notion that price is now an outmoded indicator of abuse, and that injustices in a connected world take the form of data collection, manipulation, and aggregation. So while politics “takes aim” on “big tech”, what we’re really doing is assessing the impacts that various forms of data sharing and usage actually have on industry competition and individual consumer agency.

In many ways, I do believe data should be treated like and accounted for as capital, since the monetary value it has to advertising agencies and other interested third-parties is very real. Unlike capital, however, the value data can have for different actors varies wildly, and information that may be completely useless in one application could end up becoming invaluable elsewhere. To this end, I find the phrase “big tech” fairly misleading – it’s not tech’s size that’s at issue here, but its interdependence and its connectivity. The issue with how we’re approaching it, however, is by dealing with its size anyway, when size and data are not actually all that functionally dependent. Tech can be small and wield obnoxious amounts of personal data (like many weather apps), and tech can be large and store no personal data at all. In current market conditions, tech is free to reap the best of the two worlds, but not constrained to hold positions in both.

I believe the “edge” data provides people with has been overestimated across the board: in tech, pop culture, and in politics. Nobody has the right story, because there are incentives and narratives baked within each perspective that justify actions on any side. Nobody is truly free from data. Technologists see in data hidden relationships they hope to translate directly into quick value adds – and capital flow. Pop culture sees in the technologists’ use of data a plethora of doomsday scenarios, each “AI takeover” more abrupt than the last. Politicians see in the technologists’ use of data an opportunity to appeal to the masses by showing to them the ends of their agency and painting the perils big tech presents them. At the end of the day, overvaluing our personal data may let politics entwine our lives more deeply with its branding and enable tech companies to raise money faster at ever higher valuations, but what’s in it for us? A more secure sense of self? A schadenfreude high from a rebellion against the tech elite?

I’m not saying the antitrust probes into tech are baseless. While I believe we’ve exaggerated the impacts of data moats on competition in the tech sector, partly due to a unique alignment of incentives between tech and politics to do so, tech giants armed with data do have substantive, unfair advantages over their competitors, and it’s probably a good time, if not a little late in the game, to revisit exactly how these corporations are cashing in on our information. While the legislative branch alone may be somewhat poorly equipped to correct the tech sector where it actually matters, there certainly exist plenty of domain experts, journalists, and third-party tech companies that can all bring useful, insider insights into developing healthy data usage policies and arbitration mechanisms. It is my hope that these organizations rise to the occasion when the time comes to help the law use not the sledgehammer, but the scalpel when dealing with tech.