Once regarded as engines of benevolent innovation, or even as global emissaries of democracy, big tech companies have lost their reputational luster in recent years. Their rise coincided with a historic decline in government action against market concentration and abuse of dominance. But now the gloves are off. Since 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice and nearly every state have filed major lawsuits against big tech companies. Lawmakers on both sides of the congressional aisle have introduced new antitrust legislation, including bills targeting internet platforms. Moreover, the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission has vowed to upend decades of assumptions about the appropriate tools for—and even the purpose of— regulating competition.
Where did this whirlwind of activity come from? Are tech companies, once known for moving fast and breaking things, about to get broken up? Would that fate be radically unprecedented— or rooted in American tradition? Do a search engine and a public wharf have anything in common? What about a social network and a railroad? Is our democracy at stake? To explore such questions, we will examine historical scholarship, modern research, and legal briefs, and we will conclude by considering recent legislative action. Students will come away understanding the intellectual foundations of the movement driving these changes, as well as issues unique to internet platforms.