Bill Gates: Breaking up Big Tech isn’t the answer

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Bill Gates believes calls to break up Big Tech are misguided.

The Microsoft co-founder said that approach to mitigating the power the tech industry wields is too blunt an instrument, in an interview with Bloomberg News. Gates recommended regulators target tech’s specific violations, rather than unwinding the acquisitions that helped many corporations ascend to dominance.

“If there’s a way the company’s behaving that you want to get rid of, you should just say, ‘ok that’s banned behavior,’” he said. “But splitting the company in two, and having two people doing the bad thing, that doesn’t seem like a solution.”

Back in the late 1990s, the federal government came close to breaking up Microsoft, which escaped that fate when an appeals court overruled a lower court’s decision. The antitrust crackdown distracted Microsoft and allowed some of its rivals to gain an edge. But lessons from that battle with the government may be the reason Microsoft has largely escaped the current techlash its peers are grappling with.

Related: Waiting for Elizabeth Warren: Why breaking up big tech hasn’t become a big campaign issue

The Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, federal lawmakers, and dozens of state attorney generals are investigating Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook over antitrust concerns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first — and remains the loudest — advocate for breaking up big tech companies. A proposal to do just that is part of her bid for the presidency in 2020.

“These companies are very big, very important companies,” Gates said. “The fact that governments are thinking about these things, that’s not a surprise. I was naive about this but that was a long time ago. I didn’t realize that as Microsoft gets successful, we’d come under scrutiny. We went through our thing back in the ’90s and that’s made us more thoughtful about this kind of activity.”

But Gates said regulators should be more targeted in their approach to dealing with issues like polarization on social media and other concerns. He noted that the companies that are under fire “are behaving totally legally.”

“You could say I’m biased but I see these as well-meaning, highly innovative companies,” Gates added. “It’s up to society to make sure that their innovation doesn’t have negative side effects.”

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