Warren’s Smart Tech Plan Shows Why She Should Stay in the Senate
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- So Senator Elizabeth Warren wants to break up the big three: Amazon, Facebook and Google. The Massachusetts Democrat and presidential contender has come forth with a proposal that would force Facebook to divest itself of WhatsApp and Instagram — both of which would now be serious competitors if Facebook didn’t own them. She wants Amazon to divest Whole Foods. She wants to prevent Google — and all the big technology companies — from using its platform to favor its own products. She even wants to create a regulatory regime that would treat tech companies with more than $25 billion in revenue differently from small tech companies.
“To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies,” she said in a statement issued Friday morning, prior to a rally in New York’s Long Island City neighborhood, where Amazon recently abandoned plans for a second headquarters.
Part of me is absolutely thrilled that an elected official of Warren’s stature is taking up this particular mantle. As regular readers know, I haven’t been shy about proposing this idea myself. (See here and here.) My argument is that all three companies use their dominant position to snuff out competition in ways that, one can reasonably argue, violate antitrust laws. In addition, I believe that it would be easier for society to regain control of privacy issues if the companies were smaller and less powerful.
But there is another part of me that is just a little bit dismayed. As important as I think this idea is, it holds sway among a pretty small segment of the population — the same segment, for instance, that opposed Amazon’s original decision to bring 25,000 jobs to Long Island City. (Which, presumably, is why Warren is speaking there Friday.) The same segment that already agrees with Warren’s progressive views. “Break up Facebook!” is not a rallying cry for the Democratic masses, much less the general electorate.
Which brings me to a thought I’ve been harboring for a while. I wish Warren were content to stay in the Senate. She is, by nature, a wonk — an unusual wonk in that she can articulate complicated policy proposals better than most — but a wonk nonetheless. And breaking up Big Tech is a wonkish idea that will require deep dives into the nature of platforms, the meaning of antitrust law, and all sorts of other things. Passing a bill to break up Amazon, Facebook and Google in the Senate requires someone who has the ability to get into the weeds and write legislation that makes sense — and can then argue for that bill in ways her colleagues will understand. As a senator, Elizabeth Warren could do that. As president, she would have so much else on her plate, breaking up Big Tech would likely be a lower priority.
The giants of the Senate — the ones who were workhorses rather than showhorses; the ones who got things done — all had the wonkish gene. William Proxmire, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William Fulbright, Ted Kennedy: They were all masters of the legislative process. They all knew the intricacy of the issues they chose to tackle. They all knew how to write legislation and get it passed.
Picture a 2020 election in which the Democrats retain the House while capturing the Senate and the White House. Picture Elizabeth Warren leading the Senate antitrust subcommittee. Picture her devoting her considerable skills to getting a bill passed that forces the Big Tech companies to break into smaller pieces.
I like that picture a lot.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”
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