We’ll be honest: there are lots of reasons that US Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren thinks the biggest technology companies should be broken up: and none of them are directly about what the benefits might be for music listeners, artists and the music industry. But given the ongoing debate about ‘platform-to-business’ regulation – how the companies that own app stores, search engines, social networks and smart speakers manage the third-party services accessed through them, especially if they rival a service from the platform owner itself – Warren’s plans are important for us to think about.
The headline: “It’s time to break up Amazon, Google and Facebook,” explained Warren’s announcement of her new policy. “Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”
She later added Apple to the list. “Apple, you’ve got to break it apart from their App Store. It’s got to be one or the other. Either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time. So it’s the same notion,” Warren told The Verge. “If you run a platform where others come to sell, then you don’t get to sell your own items on the platform because you have two comparative advantages. One, you’ve sucked up information about every buyer and every seller before you’ve made a decision about what you’re going to to sell. And second, you have the capacity — because you run the platform — to prefer your product over anyone else’s product. It gives an enormous comparative advantage to the platform.”
The relevance to platforms where pureplay streaming services like Spotify, Deezer and Pandora are competing against Apple Music, Amazon Music and YouTube Music is clear (even if Pandora being owned by satellite-radio provider SiriusXM may open up its own questions in future, while Facebook for now doesn’t have its own music-streaming service). But the bigger-picture question is this: if these big technology companies were broken up, how would that affect their services / entertainment businesses? And even below that: how big would, say, a Spotify have to get before its own platform stewardship comes under scrutiny – for example, on playlist promotion?
One obvious point: this is all notional for now: Warren is just one of an already-crowded field of Democrats hoping to win their party’s nomination, let alone the presidency itself. And (as Donald Trump has been finding out) promising something when you run as a candidate is one thing, and delivering it another. Even so, the fact that one of the highest-profile candidates has put big-tech breakups firmly on the agenda for the US presidential race means the implications for our world are something we should be mulling – whatever the twists and turns to come in that process.