Apple’s headquarters. Droneandy/shutterstock
Last month, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes announced the launch of a $10 million anti-monopoly fund (AMF). The fund is housed at the Economic Security Project, which Hughes co-founded in 2016 and which until now, had been primarily focused on promoting a guaranteed income. ESP is still pursuing its guaranteed income objective, however the organization now aims to supplement that work with its anti-monopoly efforts.
Hughes has long been vocal about his concern regarding the concentration of power in the industry he was once a part of, specifically the company he helped create. Earlier this year, he published a scathing—yet at times warmly sympathetic—New York Times op-ed calling for the breakup of Facebook. Hughes highlighted both the immeasurable power and immense pressure that come part and parcel with Zuckerberg’s role as King of Facebook (Zuck controls 60 percent of the company’s voting shares, so “King" isn’t that far off). Hughes describes in great detail his former college roommate’s quest for world domination, and how that has led to Facebook becoming a social media monopoly.
Yet according to Hughes, when it comes to exhibiting a monopolistic impulse, Facebook is hardly alone. “The more that I’ve learned, the more I’ve engaged in activism with others, the more I’ve come to understand that there are structural decisions within the economy itself that have been made to concentrate power in the hands of corporations, and increasingly monopolies,” he told me recently. “And this disempowers everyone else.”
Over the next 18 months, give or take, the new anti-monopoly fund will invest in projects that facilitate academic research, policy advocacy, and grassroots organizing. The fund will support both existing players in the anti-monopoly space, as well as newcomers with bold ideas who lack the financial and social capital to launch. Given how complex the issue of anti-monopoly is, Hughes said that he doesn’t champion a single approach. In fact, there will likely be no silver bullet solution, but rather a range of bespoke solutions—each confronting a unique societal harm imposed by monopolistic behavior.
“We’re not the ones to pick the winners,” Hughes said. “Our focus is on funding a range of strategies over the coming months. We’re still in the nascent stages of these conversations, and want to support a broad range of strategies and find the best approach or approaches going forward.”
So far, several major foundations have committed support to the anti-monopoly fund, including Open Society, Ford, Knight, and Nathan Cummings. Maybe most striking is news of the Omidyar Network’s $1 million grant to AMF. After all, Pierre Omidyar is one of the founding fathers of Big Tech, having launched eBay in the early 1990s—where he still sits on the board and is among the top shareholders. Omidyar’s backing of an anti-monopoly push launched by a steadfast “break-up-Facebook” underscores growing fissures within the tech world. (Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, is also backing work that challenges the power of Big Tech, as we’ve reported.)
According to Anamitra Deb, Omidyar’s Global Lead for Responsible Technology, the funder’s support for AMF reflects its evolving priorities. “Omidyar Network was founded on the belief that tech can be a force for tremendous good when it comes to access and inclusion. But over the last couple of years, we’ve become increasingly aware that there is a dual side to tech. If not stewarded well—especially at scale—it can lead to a bunch of societal harms that are becoming more evident every day.”
That explains Omidyar’s recent pivot—which we outlined here—to a new strategy that includes “reimagining capitalism” and promoting “beneficial technology.” Current initiatives include work on digital identity, tech’s culture and decision-making, and rethinking how to amply workers voice and power. Omidyar is also part of an effort, led by the Hewlett Foundation, to critique the prevalent neo-liberal paradigm and develop new economic thinking. Deb says that Omidyar’s funding strategy in this area looks to “double-down on existing organizations doing great work, while also finding nascent ideas that are more experimental and creative, which would round out and diversify core strengths in the space.”
Omidyar has joined forces with Economic Security Project in the past, on its guaranteed income work. The structure of AMF’s pooled donor fund appealed to Omidyar, as it “enables AMF to act as a clearinghouse for efficient and smart funding to players who would otherwise have to go through lots of different organizations for grants,” explains Deb. Likewise, the pooled fund “builds a shared understanding and identity among researchers, organizers, campaigners, policy specialists and advocates in the space; people who are leading with different approaches. AMF can bridge networks and form coalitions to get at this problem with a common language and set of goals.”
According to Taylor Jo Isenberg, Executive Director of the Economic Security Project, the level of enthusiasm for AMF was evident from the moment her organization began engaging in conversations with lead actors in the corporate social responsibility space. “Some foundations— like Nathan Cummings and Ford—have been tackling the role of corporations in society for a long time,” said Isenberg. “So there was a real interest in tackling anti-monopoly specifically, from those who are predisposed to tackling deeply-ingrained challenges.”
The timing is also right. Confronting monopolies (as relates to Big Tech, anyway) is one of the few issues right now where there is bipartisan support. It certainly seems Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on much at the moment, until someone mentions breaking up Facebook—then suddenly America doesn’t seem so divided. (It’s worth noting that breaking up Big Tech is only one tool in the anti-monopoly toolkit. Others include a ban on future acquisitions, the release of IP, an agreement not to enter into nascent fields, interoperability requirements, etc.).
Despite this rare slice of political solidarity, Hughes and Economic Security aren’t limiting their sights to Silicon Valley. They want to target other industries where monopolies are a growing concern, such as agriculture and aviation. “One of the things we discovered during this process is the level of concentration in the economy,” said Hughes. “Three-quarters of industries in the US economy have become more concentrated in the past 20 years.” Hughes noted the pernicious effects that corporate concentration has on pricing, entrepreneurship, productivity rates, wage levels, and perhaps most problematically—political discourse.
Open—Or Not So Open—Markets
Perhaps no one in the policy world agrees with Hughes’ point more than Barry Lynn. Lynn runs the Open Markets Institute, and has long been a critic of Big Tech. He was one of the first to sound the alarm bells about the concentration of power in Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and had been calling for the breakup of Facebook long before Hughes’s op-ed made international headlines.
Lynn explains that the problem dates all the way back to the Reagan administration when the U.S. altered its philosophy towards how it implements anti-monopoly law, which itself dates back to the country’s founding. “Anti-monopoly ensures that we have a democracy and individual liberty,” explained Lynn, “then there was this change that happened in the beginning of the Reagan administration, that said ‘you know all of those political considerations, they’re getting in the way of efficiency and production of goods, so let’s do anti-monopoly differently, so we can promote greater efficiency.’” Lynn points to this rationalization as one that paved the way for a radical concentration of wealth, power and control in the hands of a small cadre of corporations. “We didn’t change any of the laws,” he noted, “we just changed the philosophy by which we interpret those laws.”
Lynn defines the politically and economically-motivated ideological shift that took place during the Reagan administration as ‘Stage One’ of the lead-up to our current moment. ‘Stage Two’ was the advent of Big Tech, which of course at the time no one could see coming. The fact that these platforms control such a disproportionate amount of our communications, and that they are not neutral intermediaries—they connect their users in ways that promote their own interests—means they exert a degree of control over our information system that is unprecedented in the history of this country. “We went from a slow-motion threat to democracy in America, to a very fast-moving, very dangerous and immediate threat to democracy in America,” Lynn said.
Lynn certainly doesn’t mince words when discussing the threat posed by Big Tech. As we reported in 2017, his unbridled enthusiasm for reining in top Silicon Valley companies may have landed him in hot water, potentially leading to his ousting from New America, the think tank that hosted Open Markets. Lynn claims that after he publicly cheered the European Union’s $2.7 billion antitrust penalty against Google, Alphabet’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt complained to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the head of New America. Lynn and Open Markets were ousted shortly thereafter. (Slaughter denies that Lynn’s dismissal had anything to do with this statement, and claims it stemmed from his lack of collegiality). Whatever the reason, Lynn’s profile soared as a result of the incident, and his status as a thought leader in the anti-monopoly space was cemented. Hughes is considering Lynn as a funding recipient of AMF.
The Road Ahead
When I asked Hughes what types of organizations he’s looking to fund, he outlined three broad categories:
Researchers and academics. AMF wants to document the rise of corporate concentration, its impacts and consequences.
Activists. AMF wants to beef up enforcement, increase public oversight and change laws.
Storytellers. AMF wants to ensure that the problems posed by monopolies are front-of-mind for policymakers and everyday people alike. To that end, AMF aims to support documentaries, public opinion research, and other creative or outside-the-box approaches which might help this issue become mainstream.
Hughes readily admits that there is a lot that needs to happen over the next year-and-a-half in order to turbo-charge the anti-monopoly movement from where it is now to where it needs to be. Yet Hughes and his team are convinced that with enough public pressure, the U.S. can establish a more robust and supportive ecosystem for competitive markets, a vision of capitalism that the vast majority of Americans support. At the same time, a key challenge is that most Americans seem oblivious to how under threat that vision of capitalism truly is. Even as the public suffers the growing costs of monopoly—including higher prices, lower wages, and fewer consumer choices–Americans have yet to identify this as a major problem facing the nation.
With prominent foundations supporting AMF, and $10 million to work with, Hughes is dead-set on remedying that.