Everyone’s talking about “Big Tech” these days. They’re talking about it on Capitol Hill, where according to an Oct. 25 New York Times headline, “Big Tech’s Rivals Pounce at Chances to Win in Washington.” They’re talking about it on Wall Street, where Bloomberg recently compiled “Five Numbers That Show Just How Strong Big Tech Is Right Now.” They’re talking about it in London, where the Financial Times’ lead political reporter this week wondered “What to Do About Big Tech.”
The populist left is talking about it: “Al Franken Just Gave the Speech Big Tech Has Been Dreading,” Wired’s Nitasha Tiku reported last week. (After the accusations of sexual impropriety by Franken emerged Thursday, leading to calls for the senator’s resignation, the industry may be dreading him somewhat less.) The populist right is talking about it: “Big Tech Trembles as Bannon Denounces ‘Lords of Silicon Valley,’” Breitbart proclaimed. Even the conservative old guard is talking about it.
All this talk about Big Tech might seem like simply a reflection of just how powerful and important companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon have become. But it’s also an ominous sign for the industry at a time when online platforms have come under scrutiny more intense than they has ever experienced before.
In the business world, it’s great to be big with a lowercase “b.” But the history of the label “Big X” suggests that society does not prepend the label “Big,” with a capital “B,” to an industry out of respect or admiration. It does it out of loathing and fear—and in preparation for battle.
The seminal “Big X” in American discourse was “big business,” which Teddy Roosevelt targeted for trust-busting at the outset of the 20th century. Google Ngrams, a tool that charts the frequency with which certain words and phrases appear in published books over time, suggests that the use of “big business” peaked in the 1940s and has declined slowly ever since—perhaps because we now tend to vilify specific industries more than business as a whole. In a famous radio address as part of his 1932 presidential campaign, candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt contrasted the interests of “big banks” with those of the struggling “forgotten man.” He won, and within a year he had signed the Glass-Steagall Act to break them up.
Oil was a big industry well before the 1970s, and it was dominated by a cartel of multinationals known as the Seven Sisters as early as the 1940s. But it took the 1970s oil crisis, and the attendant public outrage (and windfall profits), for its largest firms to become popularly known as “Big Oil.” Likewise, the tobacco industry found itself widely labeled “Big Tobacco” only in the 1990s, when the “big five” tobacco companies were hauled in front of Congress to defend themselves against charges that their products were addictive and caused cancer. They failed at that, and the industry has never recovered. The 2000s brought the phrase “Big Pharma,” which was the title of a 2006 book by Jacky Law portraying the pharmaceutical industry as a self-serving conspiracy.
“Big tech” may not be an entirely novel phrase, but its rise is more recent than you might think. A search of U.S. news stories on the Lexis Nexis archive suggests that the term began to gain currency in the mainstream media around 2013—the year of the Edward Snowden leaks about NSA surveillance and Dave Eggers’ dystopian sci-fi novel The Circle. Before then, with few exceptions, the words had appeared in sequence only as part of the larger phrase “big tech companies,” or by an accident of sorts, as in “big Tech victory” to describe a college sports triumph.
It makes sense that it took us a long time to think of tech in these terms. When the PC and software industries were born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, pioneers such as Microsoft and Apple were viewed as young, freewheeling and rebellious. That reputation had faded by the 1990s, when Microsoft found itself on the wrong end of a federal antitrust judgment. But it was refreshed with the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, and it carried over to the rise of Facebook and Google in the latter half of the 21st century’s first decade.
The popular image of Amazon, Facebook, and Google as quirky “startups” (even after they became publically traded corporations with astronomical market capitalizations) served their interests, because it granted them implicit leeway to try new things, experiment, disrupt, and even make mistakes—to “move fast and break things,” as Facebook’s unofficial motto once had it. A high point in their public image came in 2011, when many credited social media and Twitter in particular for fanning a series of democratic uprisings against Arab autocracies.
That optimism faded as the past several years brought cascading concerns over tech companies’ harvesting of our data, invasions of privacy, shady tax practices, addictive products, and at times destructive effects on the established industries they intentionally or inadvertently disrupted. Still, as recently as last year, the phrase “Big Tech” remained rare enough that author Franklin Foer told me he hesitated to use it in the title of a book about the industry’s increasingly monopolistic power, which he published this fall. (The book is World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.) “When I told people the title, I had some people sort of question, ‘What is big tech?’,” Foer said. “I was worried it just wouldn’t scan for readers when they saw it on the dust jacket.”
Now, virtually every day brings fresh headlines in major publications that include the phrase. It seems possible that Foer’s book, and the press that accompanied it, helped to open the floodgates, though he demurred when I asked him if he thought it played a role. Certainly other tech critics, including the academic Zeynep Tufecki, author Evgeny Morozov, and Wired’s Tiku (formerly of Valleywag) have been framing the industry in a similar way for much longer, even if they didn’t always use that exact phrase.
Morozov often directed his broadsides at “Silicon Valley,” a target that my former colleague Farhad Manjoo found inapt and overly broad. The two debated that point in correspondence that Slate published in 2013, with Manjoo defending the region and its inhabitants against some of Morozov’s more sweeping generalizations. Manjoo, now a New York Times columnist, has tried out his own coinage in that newspaper, dubbing Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple the “frightful five.
Foer told me he opted for “big tech” partly because he wanted to make it clear that his criticism had to do with the unique power and scale of those specific companies, rather than with technology or the Internet more broadly. He also intended it as a direct challenge to the popular notion that the industry is topsy-turvy and unpredictable—that today’s Facebook is likely to be tomorrow’s Myspace. It’s that assumption that for years has undergirded the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s hands-off approach to what might otherwise be considered monopolistic behavior on the part of major Internet companies. Foer argues it’s outdated: The very largest tech companies have now consolidated power and wealth to a degree that insulates them from real competitive threats.
Indeed, 2017 has marked a turning point in the way the largest Internet companies are perceived by the media, Congress, and the public. President Trump has indicated that he considers Amazon a monopoly and a potential target for antitrust action. Facebook and to a lesser extent Google and Twitter have been pilloried in the media for helping spread misinformation and facilitating foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. election, as well as other elections abroad. Meanwhile, an ever-growing chorus of critics warns that our addiction to digital screens is gradually destroying everything from our sleep to our intelligence to our interpersonal relationships.
The label “Big Tech” felt more apt than ever in October, when representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified to a skeptical Congress on their role in Russian election meddling. It didn’t take a history professor to see the parallels to the tobacco hearings of the 1990s.
So if labeling an industry “Big X” is a prelude to a political battle, the question now becomes how the lines are drawn. Tiku sees a bipartisan backlash that has managed to unite such disparate figures as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren in calling for the industry to be reined in. That’s a very different climate than the one the industry enjoyed during the tech-friendly Obama administration. But it remains to be seen whether those public displays of animus will translate to substantive policy action.
That’s partly because Big Tech, like all the other Bigs before it, has ramped up its lobbying operation to defend its interests. In a sense, then, attaching a demonizing epithet to the industry might be self-fulfilling: Threatened with antitrust action or other onerous legislation, that industry is bound to respond by using its money and power to entrench itself in the Washington policy establishment. Big Tech’s current agenda in the Capitol is “self-regulation”— that is, asking Congress to leave it alone in exchange for some voluntary concessions, such as Twitter and Facebook’s new policies on transparency in advertising. At the very least, then, we should expect to see the largest technology companies start moving more slowly, with the goal of breaking fewer things—acting less like overgrown startups and more like what we’d expect from an industry known as Big Tech.
Becoming “Big” isn’t a good sign for an industry, but it isn’t necessarily a death knell, either. The government cut Big Tobacco down to size, and regulatory action against big banks curbed their power for a while—until deregulation brought them roaring back in the 1990s. Big Pharma and Big Oil, in contrast, have yet to feel such serious repercussions from the discontent that led activists to tag them with those labels.
Even if the government does take real action against Big Tech, it’s not assured that the result will be to make its constituent firms any smaller or less influential. Franken, for instance, suggested in a speech that platforms such as Google and Facebook be treated more like utilities, applying principles analogous to net neutrality. That would constrain their actions, certainly. But Foer points out that the long-term result might be to further entrench them as, essentially, government-sanctioned monopolies. In the meantime, even with the public relations beating it’s taking, Big Tech is only getting bigger—and richer.