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December 10, 2019; New York Times

Apple, Google (Alphabet), Amazon, and Facebook: Combined, these four companies have a market capitalization of over $3.5 trillion. From their economic power extends tremendous political and cultural influence. Collectively, these companies are often called the Big Four.

Yet this is not the first Big Four to come from the San Francisco Bay Area. Back in the nineteenth century, four wealthy investors—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—largely controlled the economics and politics of California. By 1884, they had combined their holdings into a company known as the Southern Pacific (SP) railroad, which controlled much of the transportation to and from the Golden State. They came to call themselves the “Big Four.” Critics called them “the Octopus.” It was not until 1910 when the Progressive Party began to decisively break SP’s stranglehold.

Today, the new “Big Four” has a network that extends globally. Granted, one of the big four, Amazon, is based in Seattle, but the other three members of this new Big Four club—Apple, Google, and Facebook—all are located within 15 miles of Stanford University, the school that bears the name of one of the region’s original Big Four.

Increasingly, philanthropy is backing nonprofit groups who seek to unwind the economic octopus of today’s “Big Four.” Among folks taking this on are the Ford Foundation and billionaire financier George Soros. Many funders come from Silicon Valley itself, notably the Hewlett Foundation and Pierre Omidyar, an eBay founder. Some of the activists, too, come from the tech world. Chris Hughes, for example, is a cofounder of Facebook. He now calls for breaking Facebook up and is a cochair of the nonprofit Economic Security Project, which, reports David McCabe in the New York Times, intends to raise (Hughes himself is a significant funder) and disburse $10 million over the next 18 months to back antitrust activists.

The Economic Security Project funds a range of efforts. One is a coalition called Athena that connects over 30 community-based organizations, including Make the Road New York, which outlined its “Beyond Amazon” framework in May, three months after the group was part of a coalition that helped push Amazon to pull out of locating part of its “second headquarters” in Queens.

McCabe also highlights the Open Markets Institute, which split off from New America Foundation in 2017. Since the split, McCabe indicates that funding has jumped up from $900,000 in 2016 to what the group anticipates as being more than $3 million in 2020. Open Markets, McCabe writes, has received $2 million from the Knight Foundation for its journalism work and $200,000 from the Ford Foundation to examine the impact of tech monopolies on the workforce.

The Color of Change, a national racial justice nonprofit, has also made antitrust work part of its agenda. A Chicago-based nonprofit, the Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), backed by the Economic Security Project, aims to undertake “corporate campaigns designed to influence the public narrative on corporate concentration and win real victories for communities of color around the country.” Another venerable nonprofit, Jobs with Justice, which has promoted economic justice since 1987, has also taken up the tech anti-trust mantle.

Cultural projects are also part of the mix. McCabe notes that the Economic Security Project helped fund a New York event in November at the Museum of Capitalism, where people played “versions of the board game Monopoly that are meant to call out inequities in the economy.” Perhaps they even played the original version of Monopoly, called the “Landlord’s Game,” which was invented by Lizzie Magie 30 years before the Parker Brothers game. Magie hoped her game would illustrate the evils of monopoly capitalism.

Still, McCabe notes, curbing the power of the Big Four today will be no easier than it was to curb the Big Four’s power in post-Gold Rush California. “They have their work cut out for them,” McCabe notes. “Tech companies spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying every year. And antitrust issues hinge on dense questions of law and economics that don’t fit on bumper stickers.”

Maria Torres-Springer, vice president for US programs at Ford, reminds McCabe of the need for a long-term perspective. “It’s about creating and sustaining a movement that rebuilds political and economic power for everyday Americans,” she notes.—Steve Dubb