Tech Titans Are the Robber Barons of Our Gilded Age

Apple’s battle with Epic is a reminder that today’s tech companies behave like 19th-century monopolists. Installing democratic control over these modern throwbacks to Gilded Age robber barons is the only way to curb their power.

The Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images)

The tech bros are fighting again. Last week, Apple blocked Epic Games from accessing its developer platform in Europe. The move would have prevented the Fortnite maker from building an app store to rival Apple’s just days before the European Union’s new competition measures — the Digital Markets Act — designed to prevent just such a thing, come into effect. Then, in an about-face as the EU began an investigation, Apple reversed course — a move Epic says is a response to “public backlash for retaliation.”

Writing for the New York Times, Tripp Mickle reports that Apple’s attempt to block Epic was justified by the claim that Epic is a rule-breaker that refuses to stay within the lines drawn to keep the App Store secure. As a rationale, it’s thin gruel. Mickle notes further that “Apple also objected to Epic’s criticism of Apple’s plans to comply with Europe’s tech competition law” — which is to say the Cupertino giant was trying to convince people it would comply with attempts to limit anti-competitive behavior. Did anyone believe that?

That reason, no doubt at the heart of the ban, is another level of petty and disconcerting monopolist bullying from Apple. The dispute between Apple and Epic is a stark reminder of Gilded Age misconduct. Private monopolies are undesirable as a rule and contemporary tech monopolists and oligopolists — in their sheer heft and reach — represent something even worse than their twentieth-century forebears. The tech battle is a call to double down on efforts to install democratic control over these companies that shape markets and so much of our lives.

Playground Quarrel on Mount Olympus

On February 26, Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, took to X/Twitter to criticize Apple’s market dominance. He took specific issue with the company’s “app store monopoly, the digital goods payments monopoly, the tax, the suppression of true information about competing purchasing options, the blocking of competing web browser engines and outright destruction of web apps.”

Sweeney styles himself as anything but an Apple “hater.” In this short thread on X/Twitter, he praised the company’s workers, noting “there is no other group of designers and engineers on earth who can build as great products as Apple when they are directed towards that end.” But he warned that “the woes begin when they are directed not to.”

He constructs Apple as an angel fallen from grace, led astray by power-hungry monopolists at the top. He argues that the company is “a few bold and visionary decisions away from being the company they once were and that they still advertise themselves to be: beloved brand to consumers, partner to developers, and overlord to none.”

Despite this schoolyard pleading — “if you weren’t being a meany, you’d be really, really great” — what we have here is a little tech world donnybrook that uncovers the internal struggles of an otherwise united class of capitalists. Technologists in the vein of Apple and Epic want to grow their companies and dominate the market. They want to maximize their number of users and profits. They want the value of their companies to rise as high as it can go. This public tech feud is thus a family affair, yet its implications are significant for all of us.

The New Boss Is Worse Than the Old

Left economists have long warned that capitalism tends toward oligopoly and monopoly, especially when states fail to control the market. Capitalists tend not to mind this phenomenon when they’re the monopolists. They like it far less, however, when they’re squeezed by the few giants who dominate the market.

Today’s tech behemoths are reminiscent of the robber barons of the Gilded Age. Years of fighting for antitrust laws aimed at some, any, regulation that might rebalance power. In the end, these fights managed to restrain them, and even broke some of them up, but the monopolies and oligopolies never died out.

Telecom, entertainment, agriculture, news media, banking, and software giants rose throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Today, we are facing tech companies that are even more wealthy, entrenched, and globe-spanning than some of the worst offenders of the last century. The impact of their platforms — which effectively comprise the public agora and profoundly shape public discourse — on democracy is an open question. Increasingly, it’s one freighted with creeping dread.

Governments around the world are trying once more to regulate the tech giants, aiming to curb their multinational corporate power and the technologies they deploy, often to great social and political damage. In Canada, the Online News Act tried to compel Meta and Google to return a modest amount of what they’ve extracted from consumers through payments to news outlets for content shared on the platforms. This resulted in Meta banning news from its platforms. The company is engaged in a similar fight in Australia, which pioneered the legislation Canada later adopted.

Meanwhile, US attempts at regulation keep getting lobbied to death. Or they are stuck in geopolitical and domestic strategy limbo, such as the RESTRICT Act. Setting aside issues of free expression, the looming ban of Tik Tok in the US proves that forceful regulation is not impossible. This case, however, is a rare instance of hegemonic geopolitical concerns trumping the preferences of tech behemoths, which isn’t exactly an outcome worth celebrating.

Only democratic control of massive tech companies can protect workers, consumers, and even states from the excesses and toxic actions of multinational corporate giants whose strategic interest and profit-maximizing tendencies produce negative externalities for the rest of us. That work must be done day by day and bit by bit, and it must rest on a refusal to buy into the tech utopianism sold to us by Silicon Valley and its devotees.

Masters of the Universe

Programmer and essayist Paul Graham also hit up X/Twitter to share his frustration with Apple’s move to terminate Epic’s developer account, citing  Sweeney’s tweet criticizing Apple as one of the company’s reasons for the action. He also reflects the tech-utopianism of his compatriots.

“We don’t want to think about Apple being evil,” he added. “It would be so inconvenient. We don’t want to switch to Android. But I see ever more signs that power has corrupted them.”

Graham’s complaint mirrors Sweeney’s — a lament for a once-great, now corrupted behemoth. Apple has long worked to control the market, bully developers, and avoid taxes. That they should use their power to silence and undercut a critic and competitor should come as no surprise. This is monopolist 101 stuff, and it goes back longer than computers have existed, let alone Apple.

Apple’s cartoonish villainy is just a minor variation on a familiar theme. The inability of tech monopolists to share their nightmarish, habit-forming, surveillance-heavy, and exploitive technologies with one another is bog-standard market behavior. While this doesn’t justify it as right or good — in fact, quite the contrary — it does align with the self-serving rules of capitalists. There is no tech behemoth that would hesitate to act like Apple if the shoe was on the other foot. This behavior merely showcases the unchecked market power that companies aspire to wield.

Before the attempted ban, Epic had plans to launch the Epic Games Store and its flagship game, Fortnite, to devices running iOS in Europe. Epic claims that Apple’s move is “a serious violation” of Europe’s Digital Markets Act. Obviously, the EU agreed that there was at least a chance that Epic was right.

The feuds of the gods on Olympus shape the lives of those of us who live down the mountain. In this case, if Apple is permitted to continue to gatekeep its App Store, for Epic or anyone else, consumers stuck in the Apple ecosystem will continue to face higher prices and fewer options. That’s the immediate reality and conundrum users face, whatever we might think of the broader economic and social issues.

If we are stuck with the “free” liberal market, we ought to at least insist on states dismantling monopolies and oligopolies. We ought to insist on users having freedoms and protections that keep them from being bilked and chained to a company’s devices.

The Epic-Apple fight was a test of the EU’s competition law and its willingness to back up its claim to care about users with action and to set a precedent that it’s ready to push back against tech monopolists. So far, so good. But there’s way more work to do.  Adjudicating squabbles between tech companies will not be sufficient. The companies themselves must be brought to heel. That struggle is real; indeed, it’s epic.