Monday, March 11, 2019

Anti-trust discomfort

The problems outlined in Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up Amazon, Google, and Facebook are real. Many people I know are increasingly concerned about how big tech has played out over the last decade. I find myself really uncomfortable, however, with the proposal to use the anti-trust breakup hammer to address the problems.

Some part of my discomfort is probably irrational and likely comes from when I worked at Sun back in the late 1990s. Most of my management chain was consumed by the lawsuit the company was pursuing against Microsoft, and it wasn’t pretty for anyone. In the end, not much good came of it. In fact, I think the lawsuit changed the Sun’s culture for the worse and in a way that it never recovered from.

Of course, the Sun case wasn’t the same as the Department of Justice anti-trust case against Microsoft, but they were concurrent, informed each other, and were settled within months of each other. The two, at least in my head, are intrinsically tied.

Who knows. Was it was a mistake for the DOJ to settle short of breaking Microsoft into two companies? Should they have gone further than they did? Or did the bust of the dot-com bubble and the resulting re-distribution of tech talent in Silicon Valley have a big part to play in the rise of Google and Facebook? And, what about the phoenix rise of Apple from it’s near death experience to industry dominance driven by spectacular execution more than anything else?

It’s tough to say. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as we’d like it to be.

When I push myself to think really objectively about it, I think my unease really centers around the quality of the conversation between technologists and politicians. It’s just bad.

Every time there’s a public hearing, no matter how good or bad the technologist on the spot performs, most of the politicians just come across as clumsy and clueless in the extreme. Of course, there are exceptions and the latest crop of fresh politicians seems like they understand what’s going on. But, the old guard? Not much clue there.

More regulation is coming, of that, I have little doubt. But as long as both sides are talking past each other and understanding very little of what the other is saying, I fear that it’s going to be implemented in a way that’s clumsy and that will hurt as much as it helps.