Despite tech giants’ colossal power, regulators keep their hands off

Commentary: A handful of technology giants — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon — control the technological platforms that will dominate life for the foreseeable future. But they are spared from regulation and much government scrutiny of any kind.

The tech giants are too big. They’re getting bigger. We can stop them. But in all likelihood, we won’t.

The history of U.S. business is one of repeated cycles of unfettered, sometimes catastrophic growth followed by periods of reflection and regulation. In previous eras of suffocating corporate dominance over our lives — when industrialists gained an economic stranglehold through railroads and vast oil and steel concerns, or when rampant financial speculation sent the nation into economic paroxysms — Americans turned to their government for a fix.

In the last half-century, lawmakers and regulators set up a regime to improve the safety of automobiles and other manufactured goods, to break up a telephone monopoly that controlled much of the nation’s communications and to loosen the fatal grip that tobacco companies held over U.S. society.

We are now at another great turning point in the global economy. A handful of technology companies, the Frightful Five — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, the largest U.S. corporations by stock-market value — control the technological platforms that will dominate life for the foreseeable future.

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Yet despite their growth and obvious impact on the economy and society, technology has long been given a special pass. For nearly two decades, under Republican and Democratic presidents, most tech giants have been spared from much legislation, regulation and indeed much government scrutiny of any kind.

Now, that attitude is beginning to change. I spent the past several weeks talking to people in government and public-policy circles about whether we should begin thinking about how to curb the tech giants’ power through government — and, if so, how.

There are growing efforts in Washington, D.C., to do something about big tech. The recognition that networks like Facebook, Google and YouTube played a great and mainly hidden role in last year’s presidential election has spurred an urgent effort to regulate political ads online.

On the left, there has been a surge of interest in rethinking antitrust policy to deal with the most economically…

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