The Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse

By
Katy Glenn Bass
March 14, 2019

There’s growing interest in using anti-monopoly tools—including antitrust law, competition policy, and regulation—to address the concerns arising from the dominance of a small number of technology companies over a wide range of economic and expressive activity. This debate has exploded in the past few days because of Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up Google, Facebook, and Amazon. At the Knight Institute, we’re especially interested in the relationship between the technology giants’ power and public discourse.  We’ll be studying this issue over the next nine months, including by soliciting papers from legal scholars, economists, and others, and by hosting a major symposium at Columbia University in the fall of 2019.

One way to understand the First Amendment is as a safeguard against a certain kind of monopoly power. It’s a safeguard against the government exercising monopoly power over the speech environment. Today, while the risk of the government exercising this kind of power seems to have waned, a small number of technology companies now control the digital public square, or large parts of it. These companies are not bound by the First Amendment, but they have an enormous influence over who can speak, what can be said, and who gets heard.

Over the next nine months, we want to examine the extent and nature of the technology giants’ power to structure, shape, and distort public discourse, and consider whether anti-monopoly tools might usefully be deployed to limit, expose, or counter this power. We’ll be soliciting papers that probe these questions and identify areas for further research. We intend to explore:

  • Whether concentration within the technology industry is a threat to free speech and self-government, and if so, how to articulate and measure this threat;
  • Historical understandings of the connection between market structure and the set of conditions that enable a free and vibrant press;
  • The implications for free speech and press freedom of using behavioral ad-based business models for major online communications services;
  • The promise and limits of anti-monopoly tools in this context in relation to the freedoms of speech and the press (with “anti-monopoly tools” interpreted broadly to include regulatory transparency and due process requirements, “must-carry” rules, and contemporary analogs to the fairness and equal time doctrines);
  • The promise and limits of self-regulation and voluntary codes in this context in relation to the freedoms of speech and the press;
  • What the implications would be of “breaking up” the technology giants for the diversity and quality of online discourse;
  • Lessons that might be drawn from earlier efforts to regulate the telecommunications industry and the media; and
  • The relevance of the First Amendment in this sphere, the relevance of free-speech interests asserted by the technology companies’ users, and the strength and implications of the technology giants’ argument that the First Amendment protects their right to shape their expressive communities.

On November 14-15, 2019, we’ll also be convening a major symposium focused on these questions, modeled in some respects on the symposium we co-hosted with the Columbia Law Review last year, which focused on free expression in an age of inequality.  We’ll be posting more information in the coming months. Watch this space for further details!