Breaking Up Big Tech Is Hard to Do

‘I would like Google to be broken up into eight or 10 different monopolies,” declared tech investor Roger McNamee earlier this year. Machine-learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio called Big Tech’s size and power “dangerous for democracy.” Jonathan Taplin, former director of USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, has called for government antitrust action. These are not dissident voices, but members of a growing chorus.

They are united in the belief that the large market shares of a few tech companies stifle competition, harming consumers and the country. What they fail to articulate is how the breakups would actually work, and how antitrust action would affect the companies and the broader tech marketplace.

Here’s the problem: Breaking up tech companies means that the government would have to split up their teams and their underlying technology. It would also require a legal and regulatory system to keep each targeted company separate from the others’ markets. These restrictions would pose challenges for any company. But for highly integrated tech firms, they’d be a death sentence.

Google and Facebook rely on flexible teams that cross the normal divisional boundaries to solve problems. These multipurpose teams drive their firms’ productivity; breaking them apart would risk killing the golden goose. By encouraging coordination among their internal departments, the tech titans have developed complex and constantly shifting organizational webs. This structure would frustrate any Standard Oil-style trustbusting effort because there are so few natural breaks within the companies. Splitting up these firms would require government officials to go cubicle by cubicle—a difficult and draconian move.

Trustbusting would also require breaking up the companies’ technologies. Facebook has developed its own suite of software to address unique problems dealing with vast troves of data: BigPipe to load pages faster, Haystack to store photos efficiently, and Unicorn to search its social data, among others.

Google’s back end is also tightly integrated. The Google File System stores massive data sets; Spanner distributes stored data across multiple servers; and Dremel enables effective queries.

Where do you cut these shared technologies when splitting up the companies? Who gets what?

Photo: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg News