THE rise of the big tech firms is easy to spot in downtown Chicago. Apple’s minimalist store looms over the riverfront, close to a skyscraper carrying the name of another omnipresent brand—Trump. At a bus stop a Facebook advertisement promises that its new algorithm will combat fake news. On the Magnificent Mile’s digital hoardings Google urges pedestrians to swoon into the arms of its voice-activated assistant.

Inside the University of Chicago, a bastion of free-market thinkers and of free speech, tech has become more prominent, too. On April 19th and 20th most of America’s antitrust establishment—officials, economists and lawyers—as well as a smattering of Silicon Valley types, gathered to discuss whether big tech needed to be tamed. The conclave came just days after Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief, testified before Congress.

One Facebook executive was brave enough to show his face in Chicago, bearing the smile of someone stuck at the dentist for two days without anaesthetic. The experts agreed that government intervention in big tech is needed. But debate raged about which institutions should do it, and about the trade-offs between innovation and regulation, between privacy and free flows of data, and between stopping manipulation and protecting free speech.

When you assemble a room full of intelligent critics, the dizzying scope of the complaints against the tech industry becomes clear. They come in three flavours. First, antitrust worries, which take in big tech firms’ high market shares, buying-up of promising competitors, and potential monopsony power over suppliers and vendors. The five biggest American tech firms together make about a tenth of all corporate profits. Second, the externalities they may impose on their users, including a loss of privacy and tech addiction. And third, their probable pollution of the public sphere with fake news, mass manipulation and lobbying.

The view in Chicago was that Facebook and Alphabet (which owns Google) are the most vulnerable to regulation given their surveillance-based models and high market shares. Apple was viewed as less problematic given that it does not sell ads and has big competitors such as Samsung. Amazon divides opinion: its stratospheric valuation suggests it will evolve into a price-gouging monopoly but at the moment it is lowering consumer prices. Microsoft, which faced an antitrust case in 1998-2001, is now seen as big tech’s harmless uncle, a label which should delight it.

America’s antitrust establishment is like a clergy that after decades of obscurity finds itself blinking on the world stage. It simultaneously resents being criticised for its passivity, wants to preserve its doctrinal purity and absolutely loves all the attention. Since the 1980s American competition policy has been timid. Even today some antitrust officials and scholars want to pass the buck, arguing that the tech problem rightfully belongs to other parts of the government.

There is something to this. Across the Atlantic, the European Commission has taken action on everything from the “right to be forgotten” to tax-dodging by tech firms. America has an institutional division of labour. Rights for individuals over their data may be a matter of consumer protection, which falls under the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Ensuring there is a variety of news sources, and that political ads are disclosed, could be the job of the Federal Communications Commission. Only Congress can repeal section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows tech firms to avoid liability for what they publish. If social media were to be regulated like tobacco or food, as a product that can harm consumers, states could play a role.

Yet ultimately big tech is also a matter for antitrust. It is possible that the big firms’ dominance will be transitory. But this is a risky assumption. The stonking valuations of Facebook, Alphabet and Amazon imply that they will double in size by 2021. All five firms prevent the emergence of rivals by buying or crushing them. They have hoovered up at least 329 small firms in the past five years, according to Bloomberg, a data provider. One venture capitalist told the audience in Chicago that there is a “kill zone” around Alphabet and Facebook, which startups cannot survive.

Antitrust is vital because any solution to the problems of big tech will require innovation as well as regulation. For example, privacy could be protected by the rise of new “fiduciary” companies that act as trusted, anonymised intermediaries between users and the big tech firms. “Ethical” firms could emerge that create search engines, social-media platforms and digital assistants which are not reliant on ads and surveillance. The job of helping competitors emerge belongs squarely to the antitrust watchdogs. Makan Delrahim, the head of the antitrust arm of the Department of Justice (DoJ), conceded this, arguing that incumbents must not “kill” competition.

Here is a prediction. An alphabet soup of different consumer, privacy and media regulators will slowly try to ensnare the big tech firms. At the same time the antitrust regulators (the DoJ and the competition arm of the FTC) will make it nearly impossible for the big five companies to acquire smaller ones. They will also seek to enforce mechanisms to ensure there can be a safe transfer of data and customers between the big incumbent tech firms and their potential competitors so that newcomers can prosper.

Let chaos reign

For the tech firms this may appear utterly disorganised, and thus fairly harmless. But one way of gauging the hawkish mood in Chicago is to listen to what the big hitters of the non-tech business world now say about the industry. On April 23rd Jeffrey Gundlach, a celebrated fund manager, stood on stage at the Sohn Conference, an investment event in New York, and made fun of Mr Zuckerberg before saying Facebook was his best “short”. The reason? Regulation. Or try the head of a megabank: the big tech firms and their bosses “have no idea what is going to hit them”.