The timing couldn’t have been better, at least for attendees of Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference this week in Aspen, for Jonathan Taplin’s recent essay in The Wall Street Journal titled “Can the Tech Giants Be Stopped?”
A lot of tech giants and their investors will be joining us in the mountains. They have many things on their minds, and among them are the difficult questions Taplin raises. Amazon (AMZN) sucks the life out of retail competitors, Taplin argues. Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) have vanquished what was the news industry-without contributing to the production of democracy-sustaining journalism that was the finest work of newspapers. They and a few others promise to dominate applications of artificial intelligence while paying little heed to the job-killing ramifications of the new technology.
Taplin, who expands on these arguments in his book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, has a solution. Antitrust regulators should temper the power of these giants, just as they did with different degrees of success with AT&T (T), IBM (IBM), and Microsoft (MSFT).
It’s a fascinating assertion, if not an airtight one. Taplin argues, for example, that if the Justice Department hadn’t forced Microsoft to open up access to its browser Google wouldn’t have existed. But Google was part of at least two other efforts at alternative browsers, Mozilla and Chrome. And Netscape, which battled Microsoft, faded from view. Google also does well on browsers it doesn’t control, like Apple’s (AAPL) Safari.
Bigness and power confer great privilege and leverage, but they also attract great scrutiny. And yet, Amazon’s prowess didn’t stop Netflix (NFLX) from becoming its competitor. Google has struggled mightily to find a non-search-ad-related hit.
Competition is at least as powerful as antitrust actions. The question I’d focus on isn’t can tech giants be stopped, but rather how big is too big? When does a tech giant become too easy a target and too sclerotic to beat back new competitors?
Maybe this all will come up this week.