Breaking Up Big Tech Corporations Is Hard to Do

We need to protect consumers from the growing influence of companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, and the public deserves to hear more about the reform proposals from the Democratic candidates.

Katy Glenn Bass
October 17, 2019

In Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate, the candidates took turns criticizing some of the “Big Tech” companies – in particular Facebook, Google, and Amazon – and offering their proposed reforms to the companies’ current practices. From breaking up the biggest platforms to introducing data privacy legislation to treating platforms like publishers, each candidate had a different take on what should be done.

But the debate format doesn’t offer much room to get into the specifics of any of these proposals, when that’s what we desperately need.

A small handful of tech companies dominate the online speech environment, and any reform proposal – whether focused on improving competition in the sector, strengthening privacy, or giving the consumer more power – will have a far-ranging impact on the way users communicate and access information online. What would breaking up Facebook mean for monitoring and curbing the spread of misinformation? How would new privacy protections change the way the platforms advertise to users, and what might that mean for phenomena like filter bubbles or micro-targeting? How can we ensure that new regulatory efforts are not deployed in a politicized manner, aimed at protecting or suppressing particular viewpoints or speakers?

We need to move beyond elevator-pitch proposals to an in-depth consideration of their expected consequences. There are enough questions to fill a whole evening of debate – which would be a real contribution to the public’s understanding of online speech issues as well – but, failing that, each candidate should release a detailed plan of action for digital platforms and what changes they hope to see. In the meantime, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia is holding a symposium to dig in on some of these questions on November 14 and 15 – campaign staffers, you’re invited too!

Woman wearing white shirt looking at the camera

Katy Glenn Bass is the Knight Institute’s research director. She was previously the director of PEN America’s Free Expression Research and Policy program, where she analyzed free expression issues, including the lack of protections for national security whistleblowers; attacks on journalists covering the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri; and the impact of mass surveillance on online speech.  

This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.