All of us have been fixated on how much influence the technology sector may have over our elections – as we should be. With data now considered “the new oil,” increased regulation for the tech sector is a safe bet, particularly regarding rights to privacy.
But Big Tech should be preparing for a policy climate that goes well beyond the rules of fair elections and rights to privacy. Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company), Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and others should be looking at the possibility of becoming the new Standard Oil Co. Inc., which was broken up in 1911 as an illegal monopoly.
You don’t have to be Thomas Piketty to realize we live in a second Gilded Age. As the Bank of Canada (BoC) recently noted, 1% of the world population has received 20% of all wealth produced by the economy since 1980, thanks to technological innovation.
Alphabet and Facebook may be less than 20 years old, but both dominate the economy – just as Standard Oil did in 1890, 20 years after it was founded. Workers everywhere are working harder today for wages that remain stagnant, accounting for the current waves of populism and nativism spreading through industrialized countries.
Because the Big Tech companies are key economic drivers, they enjoy the status in government policy that the phone companies and railways once did – and the energy sector did until very recently.
But governments respond to pressure from key influencers in the media and public opinion. And influential voices increasingly are pointing to the sheer economic dominance of Big Tech and calling for anti-trust action.
An article in the March issue of Esquire argued that now is the time to break up Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Alphabet, as the four companies dominate our daily lives unlike any other in history.
“We love our nifty phones, and just-a-click-away services, but these behemoths enjoy unfettered economic domination and hoard riches on a scale not seen since the monopolies of the Gilded Age,” the Esquire article stated. “We must bust up Big Tech.”
Apple may hold only 20% of the smartphone market, but it receives 94% of the profits generated in that market. Facebook hosts 77% of mobile social media traffic. Alphabet has 88% of search advertising. Amazon has 78% of the ebook market.
All four are in monopoly territory – by everyone’s definition.
Inflammatory language in a leading consumer magazine such as Esquire is bound to affect the public policy narrative in the coming months. A less volatile – but more influential – call for policy change came from the staid old BoC this past winter.
Using surprisingly frank language for a central banker, Carolyn Wilkins, senior deputy governor of the BoC, said on Feb. 8 that although Big Tech has given us huge economic growth, there should be limits on its economic dominance.
And Wilkins thinks limiting the economic dominance of Big Tech while still having economic growth is possible.
The BoC is taking a hard look at Big Tech and calling on the federal government to prioritize the updating of Canadian competition and anti-trust policy.
Because central bankers choose their words carefully and use euphemisms in telegraphing messages to governments, that last statement should probably be read as a call for breaking up some of the larger digital players.
“The size and market dominance of some of the tech firms raise many of the usual concerns about the potential effects of monopoly power on prices and competition,” Wilkins said in her speech. “[These companies] can easily drive out competition by combining their scale with innovative use of data to anticipate and meet evolving customer needs at a lower price, and sometimes for free.”
It’s important to note that this speech, the Esquire article and other voices began talking this way before the media was filled with stories about political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvesting Facebook data to manipulate U.S. voters in the 2016 presidential election.
The current scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica probably will be the tipping point that will force governments to stop ignoring the dominance of Big Tech.