In 1949, the Truman administration filed an antitrust suit to break up AT&T—the “Big Tech” of its day. The case dragged on until President Eisenhower’s defense secretary, Charles Wilson, wrote to Attorney General Herbert Brownell expressing concern that a breakup would destroy the “usefulness for the future” of AT&T’s equipment arm, Western Electric. With the Cold War intensifying in the background, Wilson’s alarm persuaded the DOJ to accept a settlement in 1956 in which AT&T would restrict its business to regulated telecommunications and license its existing portfolio of patents to other companies at below-market rates. AT&T now licensed core technologies, including the newly invented transistor, not only to American companies, but to emerging Japanese and European competitors, which soon challenged and in some cases destroyed U.S. firms.
Today, as Rob Atkinson writes in National Review, the Biden administration and its “Neo-Brandeisian” supporters in Congress (who advocate aggressive antitrust enforcement) are turning back the clock, seeking to break up the current generation of large tech companies—especially Google, Amazon, and Facebook—with a raft of legislative and regulatory proposals. As in the 1950s, national-security-minded policy advisers are issuing warnings about the likely consequences. Their predecessors in that role were right then, and they are right today: Breaking up Big Tech would weaken U.S. national security by diminishing these innovative companies, thereby strengthening our nation’s biggest adversary, China.
This article also appears as “Silicon Security” in the April 17, 2022, print edition of National Review.