Elizabeth Warren's decision to end her campaign means she won't get to implement any of her many plans as president. But her radical-at-the-time call to break up big tech changed the parameters of the national debate over technology — and set a standard that other candidates will either have to clear or reject.
Warren was the first politician with a national platform to call for breaking up big tech. And of all the sound bites to emerge from the protracted Democratic primary, "break up big tech" may be the most persistent. Before she said it, sweeping antitrust regulation of the big tech companies was far from mainstream. Though regulators and some lawmakers were investigating antitrust issues in tech, nothing as bold as Warren's plan to break up past mergers and prevent companies from selling their own goods had been seriously proposed. It was radical.
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But when she laid out the plan, in a March 2019 Medium post titled "Here's how we can break up Big Tech," it was immediately pace-setting.
Fast forward to March 2020 and the Federal Trade Commission is taking the idea very, very seriously. It's examining all past acquisitions by big tech companies over the past decade, a move that's inspiring the big five to change their businesses to try and wriggle out of the tractor beam of the FTC's attention.
It might be too late. Unlikely and extreme as it sounded when Warren first proposed it, the idea has caught on.
There are a few reasons why the idea was so sticky. It neatly captured the anxiety that society and government have felt since 2016 about the impacts of tech on our lives — the sense that the power of big tech companies is growing exponentially and out of anyone's control or even true understanding.
It was also the first real tech platform of any of the presidential hopefuls. And so it set the terms of discussion on the topic.
By announcing her plan, Warren forced the rest of the field to weigh in.
Joe Biden has stopped short of calling for the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook to be broken up, but he told The AP in May 2019 that it's "something we should take a really hard look at." Bernie Sanders has gone on the record as agreeing with Warren, saying that if he's elected president, he will "reinvigorate the FTC and appoint an attorney general who will aggressively investigate and break up these tech giants and other conglomerates that have monopolized nearly every sector of our economy."
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Though none of the other Democratic candidates endorsed Warren's plan exactly, they all took the basic premise — that the big tech companies had grown too big and too anticompetitive — as given.
So did much of the media. At the fourth Democratic debate in October, New York Times national editor Marc Lacey didn't ask the candidates to discuss whether big tech was too big; he simply assumed the problem and asked for the solution: "Sen. Warren is calling for companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google to be broken up. Is she right? Does that need to happen?"
The answers showed just how much Warren's position had framed the debate. Everyone on stage agreed that something had to be done; the only difference was what. That big tech was too big wasn't up for debate. Warren did that. And even with her out of the game, she's set the ground rules by which the remaining candidates are going to have to play.