Big Tech Has Turned Its Big Guns on Itself

Who needs threats of antitrust when Zuckerberg and Cook are heading towards their own Shakespearean ending

Photo illustration, source: Drew Angerer; Justin Sullivan / Getty

There seems no end to the fury of Epic Games against Apple. On three continents, the megahit maker of Fortnite is claiming that Apple is leveraging its outsized technological power to strangle companies that refuse to bow to its control over millions of apps-based businesses. Apple, Epic alleges in its latest salvo — an angry antitrust complaint filed in the European Union last week — has “completely eliminated competition in app distribution” and hurt small developers with the 30% standard cut of revenue it demands off the top.

Epic’s offensive is among dozens of anti-monopoly cases on both sides of the Atlantic that threaten to break up Big Tech and make it more legally accountable for its impact on other businesses. In their ideology-agnostic, multinational, public, and private blitz, all the plaintiffs agree on one thing: Something must be done to rein in the power of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

In the quest to protect themselves, big tech companies have formed a gigantic circular firing squad, Hamlet set amid the monopolies of Silicon Valley.

In their defense, the tech behemoths have said they are open to regulation, though not any kind that would require them to fundamentally change. That they are looking for the government to step in with some rules of the road, as long as they do not face dismemberment by hiving off their parts into separate companies. And indeed they may succeed in warding off such extreme action.

But one aspect of this combat suggests a more complicated future for them, put in motion by their own doing. In the quest to protect themselves, big tech companies have formed a gigantic circular firing squad, Hamlet set amid the monopolies of Silicon Valley. And we all know how Hamlet ended.

Not too long ago, one could be tempted to take their side. The big tech companies have been among the most popular commercial enterprises of the era. But more recently, the companies have faced a crisis of public sentiment. Economists, scholars, and politicians are linking the companies to greed, a cancer of wealth inequality, and an epidemic of social animus.

Last month, in a speech before a conference on consumer privacy and data protection, Cook fired at Zuckerberg with both pistols.

For years, many people assumed that Big Tech was akin to a gift of nature, like the air and water. But when unhappy byproducts were discovered, such as surveillance and the incitement of mass anger, policymakers at once felt deceived. “Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy,” Rep. David Cicilline, chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, said last July in a hearing involving the big tech CEOs. There may be no worse time in the last three decades to be a big tech CEO.

Righteous indignation at the top is nothing new to times of great technological change. In the 19th century, the Gilded Age industrial and financial titans roamed with some frequency onto each other’s territory and could respond with ire. Railroad magnates Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt seemed to be perpetually at daggers drawn, each bad-mouthing the other as they worked to sabotage each other’s ventures. “No man could have such a countenance as his and still be honest,” Vanderbilt said of Gould, quoted by T.J. Stiles in his biography of Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon.

A century and a half later, the most intense commercial standoff between moguls involves Apple’s circumspect CEO, Tim Cook, and the uber-confident Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. While the CEOs dominating two of the most powerful companies on Earth once seemed fond or at least respectful of each other, in recent years they have displayed Vanderbilt-size antipathy.

Cook fired the first shots in 2018. Two years after Zuckerberg began taking it on the chin for Facebook’s role in the social divisiveness that underlaid the 2016 presidential election, Cook started to publicly advocate regulation of the most influential internet platforms. He distinguished between Apple’s main business, selling hardware, and Facebook’s, vacuuming up and selling other people’s data, and started to publicly mull bolstering the protection of privacy on iPhones. Most notoriously, when asked in a televised interview what he would do differently about Facebook’s dependence on surveillance capitalism were he Zuckerberg, Cook deadpanned, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Cook, taking the side of Facebook’s most virulent critics, could not have been clearer: He saw no place in business or society for Facebook as it currently operates, and in fact regarded it as a disaster.

The sentiments between the two executives spiraled from there. Last month, in a speech before a conference on consumer privacy and data protection, Cook fired at Zuckerberg with both pistols. “If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise — it deserves reform,” he said, emphasizing that “a social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.”

Cook, taking the side of Facebook’s most virulent critics, could not have been clearer: He saw no place in business or society for Facebook as it currently operates, and in fact regarded it as a disaster. Zuckerberg has reportedly been infuriated by Cook’s temerity. Responding to the Apple CEO over the last two years, he has at turns accused him of being “extremely glib” and concocting algorithmic changes to the Apple platform to damage Facebook.

In December, Zuckerberg went further on the offensive, openly supporting Epic Games’ fight against Apple. At first, he seemed to consider actually joining Epic’s lawsuit against Apple. But in the end, he simply agreed to help the gaming company document its case, making its feelings clear with a full-page ad placed with the Wall Street Journal that declared, “We’re standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere.”

What’s become clear from Big Tech’s battle of the titans is that very few of these players respect the other’s business model. Federal and state prosecutors, along with anti-monopoly agencies across Europe, are suing all the big tech companies. In antitrust complaints filed on one day alone — December 9 — Facebook was sued by the FTC, 46 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam. But in making their final arguments, prosecutors may not need to get very clever in explaining the merits of their cases. They can simply quote back what the companies themselves have said about each other.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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