March 11, 2019
The Senator Elizabeth Warren campaign roadshow is officially underway, and the tech giants are sitting in the crosshairs.
We might be slightly protected from it in the UK, but politics in the US has become much more about theatre than concrete issues of today. For every campaign launched, there needs to be a monumental promise made which will shake the foundations of society. For Donald Trump, the wall proved to be that divisive point, and for Warren, it is the spearhead of US political and economic dominance on the global stage; the internet economy.
“I want a government that makes sure everybody – even the biggest and most powerful companies in America - plays by the rules,” Warren said in a Medium post.
“And I want to make sure that the next generation of great American tech companies can flourish. To do that, we need to stop this generation of big tech companies from throwing around their political power to shape the rules in their favour and throwing around their economic power to snuff out or buy up every potential competitor.
“That’s why my administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition — including breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google.”
And just like Trump’s wall, in reality this promise is nothing more than a PR plug to grab headlines.
Stepping up the hubris game
President Donald Trump is the master and current reigning champion of this competition.
In 2015, Trump entered the world of politics with wide-sweeping messages of hate, xenophobia and borderline racism. These political sound bites, designed to rouse in Middle America and drive forgotten voters to the polls, culminated in the claim he would force Mexico to pay for a wall which would span the width of the US southern borders. Three years into his presidency, Trump is still searching for the wall’s funding, and Warren could be walking into the same problem.
Breaking up the internet giants, the very companies who drove the US economy for years and have now become the world’s punching bag, is a daunting task. It might sound attractive to voters, the people who seek fortunes but cannot congratulate those who have found them, but what happens if Warren is unable to deliver on the marquee promise of her campaign?
This is the very dilemma which Trump is currently facing. His campaign was built on the promise of the wall, but the world still awaits the delivery. Warren is now promising an outcome which will not come easily, potentially becoming the architect of her own downfall, offering ammunition to critics and opponents.
Big promises = big problems
Warren’s promises are a threat to the giants of Silicon Valley, and you can guarantee the lobby machine has already been kicked up a gear.
First, Warren is promising new legislation which will designate some business activities as ‘Platform Utilities’. Facebook is an example, and it does appear Warren’s vision is to separate the functional aspect of the platform from participation activities. It sounds very logical, but you have to consider that the platform in these companies is essentially run as a loss leader; these platforms are free for the consumer and would not exist if the parent company was not entitled to monetize the user.
“These companies would be prohibited from owning both the platform utility and any participants on that platform,” said Warren. “Platform utilities would be required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory dealing with users. Platform utilities would not be allowed to transfer or share data with third parties.”
It would be interesting to hear how Warren thinks Facebook or the Google search engine would continue to function if the ability to make money was removed.
The second major point to consider from this post is the unwinding of what could be perceived as anti-competitive mergers.
At Google, Waze, Nest and DoubleClick are the three transactions which are considered anti-competitive, and therefore under these new plans would be reversed. We believe there are two major issues with this promise.
Firstly, removing these aspects of the business would be incredibly difficult, verging on impossible. This might not be the case for some, Nest for example, however DoubleClick is now so deeply embedded in various different functions of the Google business where do you even start?
Secondly, hindsight is an issue. Some of these transactions are only deemed as anti-competitive because of the success. DoubleClick may well not have been a success without the scale and power of Google. The company is being punished for being good at what it does.
In this case, 1+1+1 = 4. This transaction has been deemed as anti-competitive because of the sum of the parts. Google has collected several different components to make a greater result. Individually, each component is powerful, but the outcome is greater.
The not-so-slumbering giants
Google, Amazon, Facebook and numerous others will not take this aggressive attack on the basic business principles of Silicon Valley lying down.
Warren will not be the only politician to make a move against the wealth, power and influence of the internet giants, but the lobby and legal challenges will be astronomical. Should this promise get anywhere near a draft bill or even legislation to pass through the House, legal challenges will be lodged, PR propaganda will be launched, and in-direct, passive-aggressive threats will be made.
Lawyers are excellent at slowing the wheels of progress, and many of the world’s best lawyers call Silicon Valley home.
We suspect the Warren campaign team has not thought this strategy through entirely, there are too many holes and illogical conclusions. From a conceptual perspective, this is the Mexico wall promise in shape-shifting form. It is a promise which sounds attractive to voters but will be almost impossible to deliver.
That said, theatre in US politics works, and Silicon Valley is home to the bad guys right now. We suspect a political administration hell-bent on breaking-up the internet giants will fail, but it could be a big enough promise to attract votes.
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