Should Amazon and Google be broken up like Standard Oil? Yes, argues legal scholar Wu (Columbia Law School; The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, 2016, etc.), but breaking up is hard to do.
The problem is a decadeslong warping of antitrust law, which the author details in this half history, half polemic book. The title comes from a phrase coined by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who agitated against Gilded Age monopolists like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. Together with President Theodore Roosevelt, who put enforcement muscle behind the Sherman Act, they persuasively argued that monopolistic practices are inefficient, stifle innovation as well as competition, and court abusive practices against workers. (Think of AT&T, Wu suggests, a longtime state-sanctioned monopoly whose breakup cleared the way for the mainstream internet.) For much of the 20th century, Brandeis' view was accepted regulatory practice, until the arrival in the 1960s of Robert Bork, who, as a federal judge, prescribed an exceedingly narrow interpretation of the Sherman Act: So long as consumer prices didn’t rise, no conglomerate qualified as a monopoly, regardless of market share. The Borkian argument, however far afield from Sherman’s intent, is now gospel, Wu writes, rendering Security and Exchange Commission antitrust regulators toothless. This has allowed Google to bloat with buyouts—though, as Wu points out, it was a beneficiary of antitrust enforcement against Microsoft—developing unchecked acquisitive instincts that have eliminated competitors, with Facebook and Amazon following its lead. The author convincingly draws parallels between the new “tech trusts” and the Gilded Age titans, but one wishes for more fire in the argument: Wu’s background about Brandeis is important, but the modern implications could be better woven into his narrative. As it is, his strongest cases for breaking up Google are tucked into dry concluding policy prescriptions.
A valuable briefing on an underappreciated business problem, but it could use a bit of Roosevelt’s hard-nosed attitude.