Wu even suggests that we’ve turned a corner in stemming Big Tech’s dominance. “Ten years ago or whenever, they were able to get away with acquiring potential competitors, or making deals to lock out other companies,” he says. “It’s a much more challenging environment to do that kind of stuff, and in some ways, they’ve changed their conduct. And when they change their conduct, it’s harder to remain as entrenched as they were.”
Not everything has gone swimmingly in Wu’s tech policy domain. For reasons I can’t understand, we currently have no US chief technology officer; instead we have three deputy CTOs. And while the Biden administration made a gutsy move by nominating Gigi Sohn, a righteous foe of the Powers That Be, to the Federal Communications Commission, it has not been aggressive enough in either pushing the nomination to a vote or finding someone else. As a result, almost halfway through Biden’s term, the Democrats still don’t have an FCC majority.
Still, it’s clear that the Biden administration has dramatically changed the antitrust atmosphere, much in the way Wu had been advocating for before he moved to DC. The question now is whether this momentum can outlive the administration. (Microsoft, after losing its suit in 1999 under Clinton’s DOJ, later won a friendly settlement from the incoming Bush Justice Department.) Also, the recent Supreme Court ruling that limited enforcement by the EPA might portend similar rollbacks on government action against monopolistic corporations. Wu admits that’s a concern. “We know we face a somewhat challenging judicial environment,” he says. “We have to be really careful with the rules; we have to make sure they’re well-rounded. But the good news is that, in many of these cases, we’re just tapping authority that’s been there for a very long time.” He also notes that the administration is in favor of proposed antitrust legislation. (But, as far as I can see, not to the point where it’s cracking congressional heads to get it done.)
At the end of our conversation, Wu addressed what it was like to work for antitrust action from inside the White House. “It’s been a treat, an opportunity to try to put into practice things I’ve been thinking about or writing about for the better part of two decades,” he says. “In that respect, it’s been kind of an experience of a lifetime.” After that summation, it wasn’t so surprising that, soon after we spoke, Bloomberg reported that Wu would be returning to private life “in the coming months.” Wu quickly tweeted that the rumors of his departure were “greatly exaggerated.” In government, no one has a monopoly on non-denial denials.
The last time the US government went big on tech antitrust was when it sued Microsoft. The government won its case—Bill Gates and company did compete illegally—but in November 1999 Newsweek column, I wondered whether the judge’s plan to break up the company made sense.
Just as Microsoft seems in denial about its past, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson appears to be in denial about its future. True, in his 207-page “Findings of Fact,” the judge in the Microsoft antitrust suit compellingly verifies the government’s key charge that the company overstepped its bounds in forcibly enlisting its captive business allies to defend its turf. (Microsoft insists its behavior was exemplary.) But not all of the judge’s ruling deals in fact. Some of it is conjecture about how the computer marketplace will evolve over the next few years. And some of it, despite appeals-court warnings against judicial kibitzing on software design, consists of Judge Jackson’s surprisingly confident views on what features do and do not belong in an operating system (OS).