One hundred and thirty years ago, at a time when corporate giants like Standard Oil and the American Tobacco Company stood poised to completely dominate whole industries, the U.S. Congress devised the first antitrust laws in modern history. The members’ intent was to protect American consumers — and the marketplace itself — from the harms and distortions that so often develop when a powerful company can block any serious rivals from competing for people’s business: higher prices, lower quality and laxer safety standards among them.
Given how comprehensively corporations have evolved in the years since — from brick-and-mortar monoliths to complex digital ecosystems — you might expect our antitrust protections to have evolved in turn. But the truth is, those laws simply haven’t kept pace with our changing world. Not only has Congress been slow to update the rules over the last century, but our courts have also whittled down their effectiveness by choosing not to apply existing antitrust protections to the rapidly changing forms of corporate power over that span.
The big harm of unchecked monopolies is no longer about one company owning all the steel in town — cutting quality and raising prices on customers who have no one else to buy it from. The harms, like the companies, have evolved dramatically over time. Giants like Facebook amass power not simply by accumulating wealth, but by accumulating insights into our behavior and gaining influence over our lives. Their currency is our personal and social data — which they collect, store, sell and use to filter the information we see and nudge us toward choices that benefit their interests.
And Facebook hasn’t just topped that market. It has become the market — leaving a huge swath of people with nowhere else to go for many of the digital era’s most fundamental needs and experiences. No, it hasn’t raised the price of oil or tobacco. But it has caused harm. Having caught so much of America in its web, Facebook saturates our digital environment with threats to our privacy, paid content masquerading as news, and widening whirlpools of misinformation that suck us in, manipulate our thinking and degrade our civic health.
Like Standard Oil, Facebook swallows up potential competitors — acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp, for example — so that it can dominate one of the essential industries of the digital age: defining our reality, our connections and our time. Facebook throws its weight around, snuffing out whatever rivals it can’t purchase by strictly controlling access to its massive platforms and making it difficult for us to switch to rivals. The company doesn’t just steamroll smaller companies — it assimilates them, entangling its conquests to make it harder for government regulators to slow its growth. And without meaningful competition — and with an endless stream of data to soak up — Facebook has little incentive to maintain the quality of the product it offers.
What was true in 1890 is also true today: No one company should have access to that magnitude of power. Just as the giants of the past were denied the chance to capture entire industries, we should not allow the giants of the present to monopolize the digital marketplace, our data or the information we rely on to make informed choices in our economy and our democracy. Consumers should raise their collective voice — and our government must act — to put responsible limits on the power that Facebook holds over our lives.
Already, 6 in 10 Americans support stronger government guardrails for digital platforms. A House antitrust report released earlier this month cited a Consumer Reports survey finding that 79% of Americans “think that mergers and acquisitions pursued by large platforms are unfair because they undermine competition and limit consumer choice.”
The same survey found that 3 out of 4 people worry about the amount of power wielded by the biggest tech platforms, including Facebook. The problem isn’t a lack of consensus — it’s a lack of action.
What would that action look like?
Our government could start by strengthening existing antitrust laws, funding the watchdogs that exist to enforce rules and hold companies like Facebook accountable and standing stronger against mergers that stifle competition and consumer choice. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram should be retroactively reviewed: If it’s determined that their combination is impinging on a healthy, competitive marketplace, there should be changes to their current structure or some imposition of limits on their joint actions.
We should pair stronger protections against anti-competitive behavior with new rules for a new economy: privacy laws that reflect the world we live in today, and rules that allow us — not Facebook — to control the flow of our data.
Most of all, we as consumers need to speak up and insist to those in the halls of power that the digital marketplace evolves to serve our needs and interests — not the interests of corporate giants. We must raise our voices soon before the concrete dries, and Facebook cements its current position of digital dominance — and the very real harms that come with it — into the bedrock of our lives.
Since it is our data, it is absolutely in our power to turn our concerns into action to further competition and fairness in our marketplace.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.