Taming the titans
Google, Facebook and Amazon are increasingly dominant. How should they be controlled?
Not long ago, being the boss of a big Western tech firm was a dream job.
As the billions rolled in, so did the plaudits: Google, Facebook, Amazon and others were making the world a better place.
Today these companies are accused of being BAADD—big, anti-competitive, addictive and destructive to democracy.
Regulators fine them, politicians grill them and one-time backers warn of their power to cause harm.
Much of this techlash is misguided. The presumption that big businesses must necessarily be wicked is plain wrong.
Apple is to be admired as the world’s most valuable listed company for the simple reason that it makes things people want to buy, even while facing fierce competition.
Many online services would be worse if their providers were smaller. Evidence for the link between smartphones and unhappiness is weak.
Fake news is not only an online phenomenon.
But big tech platforms, particularly Facebook, Google and Amazon, do indeed raise a worry about fair competition.
That is partly because they often benefit from legal exemptions.
Unlike publishers, Facebook and Google are rarely held responsible for what users do on them; and for years most American buyers on Amazon did not pay sales tax.
Nor do the titans simply compete in a market. Increasingly, they are the market itself, providing the infrastructure (or “platforms”) for much of the digital economy.
Many of their services appear to be free, but users “pay” for them by giving away their data.
Powerful though they already are, their huge stockmarket valuations suggest that investors are counting on them to double or even triple in size in the next decade.
There is thus a justified fear that the tech titans will use their power to protect and extend their dominance, to the detriment of consumers.
The tricky task for policymakers is to restrain them without unduly stifling innovation.