Forty-six state attorneys general have joined Letitia James, their New York counterpart, in an antitrust investigation of Facebook. Every presidential candidate in last week’s Democratic debate agreed that big tech companies have grown too powerful and must be humbled or diminished, if not broken up entirely. This idea has gained popularity across the political spectrum, with two-thirds of Americans now saying they would break up Big Tech. Although still a long shot, the breakup campaign has spawned dozens of antitrust probes against Amazon, Apple and Google as well as Facebook. And it has started a long-overdue debate about Silicon Valley’s sweeping influence.
But there are dangers in restructuring any U.S. industry. One of the most serious remains largely unrecognized: national-security risk. Despite their faults, tech companies contribute directly to American military and intelligence operations. Their titanic scale can itself be an asset. Any responsible antitrust debate must address the national security risks of breaking up Big Tech—and the parallel risks of keeping these companies intact.
Consider cloud computing. The Defense Department is planning a massive global cloud called JEDI. Unlike corporate clouds, the “war cloud” must support life-or-death missions on austere battlefields despite virtual or physical onslaughts. The Pentagon found only two eligible bidders: Amazon and Microsoft. Three defense secretaries, a federal judge and the Government Accountability Office have upheld this bidding process.
It is no coincidence the two eligible bidders have a combined market value of $1.9 trillion. Vast resources were needed to fund global networks of hardened data centers linked by undersea cables. The U.S. military’s unique demands required companies of unique scale. Yet one JEDI bidder faces a concerted breakup campaign (Amazon), and the other was nearly dissolved in 2001 (Microsoft).
Scale also matters in intelligence collection. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act compels U.S. companies to hand over data on suspected foreign agents. U.S. intelligence analysts increasingly rely on FISA to monitor terrorist communications or warn of cyberattacks. Tech giants have particular FISA value because their sheer popularity attracts users from around the world, including hostile actors. The largest tech companies provide some of the fastest-growing intelligence streams.
Splitting up Big Tech would reduce its intelligence value. First, smaller companies would lose global market share to foreign rivals such as Alibaba or Baidu, which can ignore FISA. Small U.S. sites can’t leverage the “network effect,” a gravitational force that helps large sites stay dominant. Intelligence collected from small sites would also be less useful. They see only narrow slices of online activity, whereas tech giants track users across sprawling internet ecosystems. Dismantling these ecosystems would put greater burden on intelligence agencies to “connect the dots” of potential threats.
But national security cuts both ways in the antitrust debate. Silicon Valley giants have taken many actions that contravene U.S. interests, then relied on their clout to avoid accountability. Social-media platforms have given terrorist groups a new way to radicalize recruits and enabled foreign governments to covertly influence the general public. These actors exploit algorithms that make sensational content go viral—a result of decisions by Facebook and YouTube to maximize user engagement.
Granted, defining the bounds of acceptable content is no easy task. But tech titans keep failing in basic ways: auto-generating terrorist pages, hobbling analysis of influence campaigns, shunning democratic scrutiny. Such negligence stems from unaccountable power.
Big Tech has also contravened U.S. interests on China. American companies should exercise great care to avoid helping Beijing leapfrog the U.S. military or perfect digital repression. Glib platitudes—“AI and its benefits have no borders,” as one Google executive put it—do not justify Google’s establishment of a Chinese research center. Dubious assertions and discredited theories can’t excuse Apple’s censorship of Chinese apps. U.S. tech titans often fall short of the serious due diligence they owe in matters of national interest.
So we face a dilemma: Big Tech has both helped and hindered national security. How can America protect its military and intelligence posture while also addressing legitimate antitrust concerns?
First, broad concerns about “bigness” should be distinguished from specific claims of anticompetitive conduct. Abusing market position to suppress rivals is illegal and unacceptable. Bigness itself is more complicated. Any remedy for unlawful behavior—especially breakups—should be tailored to protect national security.
Second, federal authorities should remain firmly in charge of Big Tech antitrust cases. State governments can offer investigative support, but they should ultimately defer to Washington—which is better equipped to evaluate national-security consequences.
Third, Congress should invite national-security experts to testify on possible fallout from breaking up tech giants. Lawmakers might also create formal channels for the military and intelligence community to communicate with antitrust enforcers, with safeguards against politicizing law enforcement.
No Big Tech breakup plan should be taken seriously if it ignores national security. Likewise, no tech company should distract us from irresponsible behavior by simply waving the flag. Big Tech presents problems, to be sure, but the answer isn’t simply to turn it into Small Tech.