It’s good policy, but having run Democratic groups for years, I know it’s good politics, too.
President Joe Biden speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, March 12, 2021, in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, listen. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The five biggest tech companies in the U.S. have gone from $2 trillion dollars in value to $7 trillion in just the past five years. To put that in perspective, if you took all U.S. currency in circulation worldwide, you wouldn’t be able to purchase even a third of their value. That hasn’t just made them rich, it’s made them “too big to care.” It’s no coincidence that Big Tech companies have caused chaos and controversy in two presidential elections, supercharged health misinformation during a global pandemic, and stifled economic competition while suppressing worker wages. As Democrats settle in for at least two years of full control in Washington, they need to respond —not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s a political necessity.
From a policy perspective, the merits of cutting Big Tech down to size are clear. For years, large tech companies have amassed and wielded power with impunity, and America’s economy and democracy have paid the price. Companies like Amazon and Google have engaged in anticompetitive practices that harm small businesses and undermine entrepreneurship, while social media giants like Facebook have built business models designed to radicalize users and sow division. Rather than compete fairly, they just buy up competitors or force them out of business. On nearly every issue Democrats care about—from climate change and racial justice, to economic inequality and free and fair elections—a tech company is on the other side standing in the way.
But for Democrats that care about making progress, reigning in Big Tech isn’t just a substantive issue, it’s a political one. We’ve seen that unchecked extremism and misinformation online tilts the electoral playing field away from Democrats who believe in science and facts and toward Republicans who traffic in toxic conspiracy theories. And recent polling shows an overwhelming majority of Americans have grown concerned about the concentrated power of the largest tech companies. They also believe that companies like Facebook drive people apart, that Big Tech’s economic power is a problem, and that the federal government should implement stronger tech regulations. Mark Zuckerberg is less popular than Donald Trump.
Republican politicians like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley recognize the political upside of challenging Big Tech. While they may not care about actually blunting the economic and social harms big tech companies cause, faux Republican outrage is designed to draw contrasts with Democrats—painting them as coddling mega corporations and donors. Americans saw this on full display recently when Hawley grilled Merrick Garland over news reports he was considering a former outside Facebook lawyer to lead the DOJ’s antitrust division. While Garland denied the reports, it highlighted the fact that there are fringe members of the GOP caucus who see opportunity in being perceived to lead on antitrust issues.
The good news for Democrats is this issue is still a jump ball politically. According to new polling by the advocacy group Accountable Tech, voters are evenly split when asked which party they trust more to hold Big Tech accountable. So what should Democrats do to deliver?
First, they should use the power of the White House. President Biden has a short window to take decisive action across a range of issues, and that starts by putting the right people in charge. So far, President Biden is on the right track, appointing Lina Khan and Tim Wu to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and National Economic Council respectively, as well as experienced, pro-consumer leaders to head up the Securities Exchange Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But there are jobs that still need to be filled, most notably, that of Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust. And filling that slot with another antitrust champion will send a resounding signal that President Biden and Congressional Democrats won’t stand for Big Tech abuses and that the administration is serious about aggressively enforcing the nation’s antitrust laws, which Republicans have undermined for years. The majority of Americans agree, with nearly twice as many voters supportive of breaking up big tech companies than opposed.
Second, Congress needs to put this issue front and center. In February, Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced legislation to broaden the standards for antitrust enforcement and increase funding for federal antitrust agencies. Senator Klobuchar, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, also plans to hold hearings that focus on Big Tech’s harmful effects on the economy. Her counterpart in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman David Cicilline, has already produced a sweeping report on Big Tech’s antitrust violations and is proposing increased scrutiny of price gouging and a pause on mega-mergers during the economic crisis. Democratic leaders in both chambers should make this a priority.
Finally, in addition to getting the substance right, Democrats need a focused message that cuts through the Republican noise. The harms of Big Tech are not theoretical—from the Capitol riots to Covid-19 recovery to the lack of choice and competition online, Americans are seeing them every day. Democrats should meet Americans where they are and talk about solutions in the context of day-to-day life. Arguments centered on pocketbooks and healthcare are more powerful than empty and misleading Republican complaints about free speech
In confronting the impact of Big Tech on our society, we face a looming problem that cuts across every aspect of our economy and our society. As a country, we need to reign in Big Tech. As a party, Democrats have the power to pick up the mantle. We should lead as though our political lives depended on it, because they do.