Last week the US wanted to break up Big Tech. Now it’s trying to supersize it.
Donald Trump sits next to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at a 2017 event. | Chip Somodevilla / Getty
The TikTok/Microsoft deal — if it happens — will make it harder to shrink Facebook or Google. Do you think Donald Trump cares about that? Last week, US lawmakers hauled the heads of four giant tech companies into a virtual antitrust hearing , ostensibly over concerns their companies are too big.
This week, the president of the United States is sort-of-kind-of-maybe trying to help a different giant US tech company become even bigger — by forcing the Chinese owners of TikTok to sell it to Microsoft.
There are all kinds of perspectives on a potential sale of TikTok from ByteDance to Microsoft . Some rational people think it’s a good idea : They don’t want the popular social video app with a huge presence in the US to be controlled by a Chinese company because Chinese companies are, in various ways, extensions of the Chinese government.
Others quite rightly worry about potential retaliation from China against US companies that do business in that country, as well as the breakdown of the entire concept of an open internet .
But it seems to me that one of the striking parts of the whole deal would be that the US government, which says it worries about the reach and power of its homegrown tech giants, is now actively encouraging a deal that would supersize one of those giants.
Which suggests that the US isn’t really worried about the reach and power of its tech giants.
Caveat time! There are many confounding, surprising, and improbable components to the ByteDance-TikTok-Microsoft-White House-China story, which is very much a moving target. This afternoon, for instance, Donald Trump insisted that in order for the deal to go through, the US government would have to get a “ very substantial portion ” of any sale price if Microsoft does buy TikTok from ByteDance.
Trump, of course, says all kinds of things, all the time. Many of those things are not true. But if he actually means it this time, it means the deal looks much less likely than it did a few hours earlier.
And while we’re at it, let’s be clear that it’s hard to make a real antitrust argument against a Microsoft-TikTok deal, at least as antitrust law works in the US right now: TikTok may worry the social media giant Facebook, but Facebook still dwarfs TikTok; same thing for Google’s YouTube. Facebook, for instance, says it has 256 million users in the US and Canada; TikTok says it is at 100 million.
It’s also not a coincidence that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was not in Washington last week, testifying along with the heads of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon . With the exception of its Xbox gaming platform, Microsoft has a very modest consumer internet presence in the US psyche*. If any big tech company is going to acquire TikTok, it would be Microsoft.
But let’s also be very clear:...