Pattern Matching

How ‘Breaking Up’ Apple and Amazon Might Actually Work

A banking law from 1956 offers a realistic model for regulating dominant internet platforms

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
8 min readAug 29, 2020

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Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

“Break up Big Tech” has become a rallying cry for some, especially on the left, who see the largest tech companies’ power as a threat to innovation, small business, and perhaps even democracy. The call made headlines last year when Elizabeth Warren, who was then a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, outlined an aggressive plan to do just that. And it drew fresh attention with last month’s widely publicized antitrust hearing, which featured the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. I wrote at the time about the parallels (and differences) between that hearing and the Big Tobacco hearings of the 1990s.

Along the way, more moderate critics of the technology industry, along with its defenders, have tried to pump the brakes on the breakup train. “Breaking up big tech companies is the nuclear option,” Jeff Bercovici argued in Inc last year, in response to Warren’s proposal. “Why not try fixing what’s broken before pushing the button?” In January, a Wired op-ed’s headline implored, “Don’t Break Up Big Tech.” Author Zachary Karabell warned, “‘Break them up’ is an easy slogan, and an appealing one; but like so many easy things, it will solve little.” Some experts with impressive credentials agreed. “Just ‘break them up’ is an oversimplified sound bite, not a real policy that would restore competition in digital markets and benefit consumers,” wrote Fiona Scott Morton, a Yale economist who specializes in antitrust, in the Washington Post last year. (Only later did she disclose that she has a side gig as a paid adviser to Amazon and Apple.)

What might not be obvious from this discourse is that there are ways to break up Big Tech that amount to both far more than a “sound bite” and far less than a “nuclear option” — and which have the potential to address specific competition concerns in a coherent and carefully targeted way. This week, the chair of the House antitrust subcommittee hinted that at least one of…

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