In just 10 years, the world’s five largest companies by market capitalization have all changed, save for one: Microsoft. Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Citigroup and Shell Oil are out and Apple, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon and Facebook have taken their place.
They’re all tech companies, and each dominates its corner of the industry: Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising, Facebook (and its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic and Amazon has a 74 percent share in the e-book market. in classic economic terms, all three are monopolies.
We have been transported back to the early 20th century, when arguments about the “curse of bigness” were advanced by President Woodrow Wilson’s counselor, Louis Brandeis, before Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court. Brandeis wanted to eliminate monopolies, because (in the words of his biographer Melvin Urofsky) “in a democratic society the existence of large centers of private power is dangerous to the continuing vitality of a free people.” We need to look no further than the conduct of the largest banks in the 2008 financial crisis or the role Facebook and Google play in the “fake news” business to know that Brandeis was right.
While Brandeis generally opposed regulation - which he worried inevitably led to the corruption of the regulator - and instead advocated breaking up “bigness,” he made an exception for “natural” monopolies, like telephone water, and power companies and railroads, where it made sense to have one or a few companies in control of an industry.
Could it be that these companies - and Google in particular - have become natural monopolies by supplying an entire market’s demand for a service, at a price lower than that what would be offered by two competing firms? And if so, is it time to regulate them like public utilities?
Consider a historical analogy: the early days of telecommunications.
In 1895 a photograph of the business district of a large city might have shown 20 phone wires attached to most buildings. Each wire was owned by a different company, and none of them worked with the others. Without network effects, the networks themselves were almost useless.
The solution was for a single company American Telephone and Telegraph, to consolidate the industry by buying up all the small operators and creating a single network - a natural monopoly. the government permitted it, but then regulated this monopoly through the Federal Communications Commission.
AT&T (also known as the bell System) had its rates regulated and was required to spend a fixed percentage of its profits on research and development. In 1925 AT&T set up Bell Labs as a separate subsidiary with the mandate to develop the next generation of communications technology, but also to do basic research in physics and other sciences. Over the next 50 years, the basics of the digital age - the transistor, the microchip, the solar cell, the microwave, the laser, cellular telephony - al came out of Bell Labs along with eight Nobel Prizes.
In a 1956 consent degree in which the Justice Department allowed AT&T to maintain its phone monopoly, the government extracted a huge concession: all future patents were licensed (to any American company) royalty-free, and all future patents were to be licensed for a small fee. These licenses led to the creation of Texas Instruments, Motorola, Fairchild Semiconductor and many other start-ups.
True, the internet never had the same problems of interoperability. And Google’s route to dominance is different from the Bell System’s. Nevertheless, it still has all of the characteristics of a public utility.