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2020 Democrats lay into Big Tech "monopolists"

Photo of Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren debating on a screen
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Key Democratic presidential hopefuls displayed their divisions and agreements over what to do about the power of Big Tech in a lengthy chunk of Tuesday night's debate.

What they're saying: Sen. Elizabeth Warren outlined the most comprehensive antitrust-enforcement approach.

"I'm not willing to give up and let a handful of monopolists dominate our economy and our democracy. It's time to fight back.... We need to enforce our antitrust laws, break up these giant companies that are dominating, big tech, big pharma, big oil, all of them."
— Sen. Warren

Though Warren's dispute with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has generated headlines, the company she took specific aim at was Amazon.

  • She said that in brick-and-mortar retail, Walmart, the largest player, has 8-9% market share, while Amazon has 49% of online sales, partly by serving as a storefront for other, smaller retailers: "It runs the platform, gets all the information, and then goes into competition with those little businesses. Look, you get to be the umpire in the baseball game, or you get to have a team, but you don't get to do both at the same time."

Sen. Kamala Harris, who two weeks ago called on Twitter to suspend President Trump's account for his attacks on the Ukraine whistleblower, decried Twitter's inconsistent application of rules, calling it a "grave injustice ... when the rules that apply to the powerless don't apply to the powerful."

  • Harris challenged Warren to endorse her demand that Twitter boot Trump, which she described as "a matter of corporate accountability."
  • Warren's response: "I don't just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House."
  • Warren shifted the argument to highlight donations from corporations and executives (which she has forsworn): " If we're going to talk seriously about breaking up big tech, we should ask if people are taking money from the tech executives."

Sen. Bernie Sanders did not address the tech industry specifically but broadened his antitrust attack to include finance, media, and agribusiness: "We need a president who has the guts to appoint an attorney general who will take on these huge monopolies, protect small business, and protect consumers by ending the price fixing that we see every day."

Missing in action: Former Vice President Joe Biden, standing centerstage as the nominal front-runner, was not called on by the moderators and did not speak up on the issue.

The other candidates:

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, argued, "We need to start talking about this as a pro-competition issue."
  • Former congressman Beto O'Rourke said he believed the government should treat tech platforms as publishers rather than utilities, but cautioned, "I don't think it is the role of a president or a candidate for the presidency to specifically call out which companies will be broken up. That's something that Donald Trump has done."
  • Sen. Cory Booker said that "the way tech companies are being used" has created "a crisis in our democracy" and "we need regulation and reform."
  • Tom Steyer said, "Monopolies have to be dealt with. They either have to be broken up or regulated," but added: "We're going to have to show the American people that we don't just know how to tax and have programs to break up companies but also talk about prosperity."
  • Andrew Yang agreed with Warren's "diagnosis of the problem" but cautioned that "competition doesn't solve all the problems ... It's not like breaking up these big tech companies will revive Main Street businesses around the country... Using a 20th century antitrust framework will not work."

Why it matters: Hostility toward giant tech companies is the rare issue that unites both parties today.

  • Democrats are mad specifically at Facebook for its role in spreading disinformation that some blame for their 2016 loss. More broadly, their progressive wing has long been hostile to concentrations of corporate power.
  • But Republicans have a beef with Big Tech, too, because they claim the platforms are biased against conservatives. And President Trump has expressed hostility toward Amazon because its founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post.

Tech trivia highlight: Yang gave a shoutout to Bing, Microsoft's failed search engine.

Go deeper: 5 takeaways from the debate