Pattern Matching

Why Tech’s Great Powers Are Warring

The feud between Apple and Facebook enters a new era

Will Oremus
Published in
8 min readDec 19, 2020
Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An adage of international relations holds that great powers have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests. (The original quote, from a 19th-century English statesman known as Lord Palmerston, is a bit less pithy.) It accounts for how the United States and Russia were allies in World War II, then bitter enemies soon after; or how Japan fought with the Allies in World War I but joined the Axis in World War II.

Today, the U.S. internet giants resemble expansionist empires jostling for power, influence, and market position around the world. Each has its impregnable base of power — e.g., search for Google, social networking for Facebook, online shopping for Amazon — but their spheres of influence are so great that they can’t help but overlap. At times, their drive for growth brings them into conflict in outlying territories, such as streaming, messaging, voice platforms, and cloud services.

That seems to be happening more often, or at least more publicly, of late. And it may be because we’re nearing the end of a digital Pax Americana — an epoch of internet history in which lax regulation and unfettered access to global markets allowed the great U.S. tech powers all to flourish at once.

With so many emerging business opportunities and developing markets to conquer, tech’s great powers had more to gain from coexisting peacefully than from calling down public opprobrium or regulation on each other’s heads. But a backlash against the industry, a revival of antitrust oversight, and a tide of digital nationalism, coupled with the rise of Chinese tech firms as global powers, have given America’s internet giants less to gain from business as usual — and, perhaps, less to lose from publicly turning on each other.

The Pattern

Silicon Valley’s uneasy alliances are shifting — and maybe fracturing.

  • Apple is readying new privacy features that could hurt Facebook and others. Starting in the new year, the company plans to introduce on iOS a pop-up that would notify users of a given app — say, Instagram — that it wants to track them across other apps and websites. Users…