"Corporations, big business and egos ... When it all gets too bad." — from "The Road" as performed by The Kinks
The calls for regulation of America’s largest technology companies are growing daily. The Big Tech backlash also appears to be one of the few topics that transcends political parties and ideologies.
Some say we need to copy and impose our own version of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which qualifies as the first major data and privacy law of its kind anywhere on the globe. Others say we simply need to break up these giants because they are stifling competition and abusing their power.
The history of antitrust regulation in America is complicated, complex and nuanced. During the attempts to break up Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the structure of the entire country’s energy supply was at stake. And apart from Rockefeller’s employees, heirs and philanthropic recipients, the country was largely supportive of splintering that mega-corporate monopoly.
Today’s tech giants don’t control the nation’s natural resources or railroads; they also don’t control the supply of food, water, medicine or housing. Instead, the modern “monopolies” largely control information and our access to it. They know where we are, what we’re doing, where we’re going to be and when, what we're likely to buy, and even what we’re thinking.
This may sound Orwellian, but the reality is that we all willingly and for the most part knowingly opt in to these services simply to make our lives easier. Orwell’s dystopian future may yet come, but for now we look more like characters in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where citizens gladly accept the convenient status quo at the expense of freedom and privacy.
Most of these services are free and dramatically improve the quality of our lives. That should certainly count for something. Remember the days when you would ask yourself a question and had to live with not knowing until someone told you or you read it somewhere? Now, thanks to Big Tech, we have an infinite supply of information at our fingertips, or more specifically, ready to respond to our voice queries.
From an investment perspective, the history of antitrust legislation tells us investors shouldn’t fear full-blown breakups of Big Tech. It's been a long time since the United States broke up a large corporation for antitrust reasons. It's a long and difficult process. Secondly, the current iterations of all the major companies that have been broken up or had punitive antitrust rulings against them in the modern era are worth far more today than at the time of the antitrust actions. It’s possible that breaking up Big Tech creates more shareholder wealth than it destroys.
But who knows? Just ask Siri.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.