ICLE Issue Brief

The Ghosts of Antitrust Past

Alec Stapp, current Director of Technology Policy at Progressive Policy Institute, and former Research Fellow, Law & Economics at International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), reviews the antitrust cases against IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft and discusses what we can learn from them today. He explains the relevant concepts necessary for understanding the history of market competition in the tech industry.


Big Tech continues to be mired in “a very antitrust situation,” as President Trump so eloquently put it in 2018. Advocates for more aggressive antitrust enforcement in the tech industry often justify their proposals by pointing to the cases against IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft. In announcing her plan to break up the tech giants, Elizabeth Warren highlighted the case against Microsoft in particular:

The government’s antitrust case against Microsoft helped clear a path for Internet companies like Google and Facebook to emerge. The story demonstrates why promoting competition is so important: it allows new, groundbreaking companies to grow and thrive — which pushes everyone in the marketplace to offer better products.

Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, summarized the overarching narrative recently (emphasis added):

If there is one thing I’d like the tech world to understand better, it is that the trilogy of antitrust suits against IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft played a major role in making the United States the world’s preeminent tech economy.

The IBM-AT&T-Microsoft trilogy of antitrust cases each helped prevent major monopolists from killing small firms and asserting control of the future (of the 80s, 90s, and 00s, respectively).

A list of products and firms that owe at least something to the IBM-AT&T-Microsoft trilogy.

(1) IBM: software as product, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Seagate, Sun, Dell, Compaq
(2) AT&T: Modems, ISPs, AOL, the Internet and Web industries
(3) Microsoft: Google, Facebook, Amazon

In other words, by breaking up the current crop of dominant tech companies, we can sow the seeds for the next one. But this reasoning depends on an incorrect — albeit increasingly popular — reading of the history of the tech industry.

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