Break Up The Tech Giants

Wednesday 1 November 2017, 6.45pm | Emmanuel Centre

Add to Calendar >


Break Up The Tech Giants

This debate will be recorded for later broadcast on BBC World News.

Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. In the space of just ten years, these five have become the biggest companies on the planet, each utterly dominating the market they operate in. This is not just down to smart business practice. By spending billions of dollars buying up smaller rivals, the tech giants have effectively snuffed out the competition – and all with barely a whisper from state regulators. They have also hollowed out other industries. Facebook and Google have hijacked the advertising revenue of newspapers, Apple has eaten up music sales, and Amazon has throttled publishers and bookshops. The threat of these companies, however, lies not just in their size, but in the 21st century’s most valuable asset: data. Extracted freely from us, the users, data is the digital economy’s oil. And all that information is being used by advertisers to sell us not just stuff, but ideas and political opinions too, in an unprecedentedly targeted manner. The refusal by companies such as Facebook to accept their responsibility as publishers, rather than as mere platforms, has also paved the way for the proliferation of ‘fake news’, which arguably had a significant influence on the American presidential election. Silicon Valley was meant to be an equalising, democratising force. Now with so much wealth and unchecked influence over our lives being centralised by a handful of companies on the West Coast of America, the tech giants are beginning to look like a serious threat to our basic freedoms. They must be broken up. That’s the argument that will be made at this major Intelligence Squared debate by Professor Dame Wendy Hall, one of the world’s leading computer scientists, and businessman and former chairman of Channel 4 Luke Johnson.

But others would argue that it’s all too easy to make the tech giants a scapegoat for the upheavals caused by the digital revolution. The real winners of that revolution are not the tech companies; they are us, the users. That’s the case that Google’s head of European economic policy Adam Cohen and former head of the German Monopolies Commission Justus Haucap will be making in our debate. Who among us could now imagine living without the services of Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft? The simple reason they have become so huge is that we prefer their services to anyone else’s. Amazon, for example, have served the consumer well by keeping prices low – hardly a sign of anti-competitive behaviour. Furthermore, these tech companies are using their enormous resources to help the wider world, as they marshal technology to meet challenges from healthcare to electric vehicles. And when it comes to competition, the dominance of the current giants is far from assured. Digital tools and cheap market entry make it easy for rival startups to launch new online businesses. Tech companies are also prone to sudden changes in fortune. Anyone remember AOL? Or MySpace? Far from being untamed monopolies, the tech giants in fact face fierce competition from each other. Yes, they should be fairly regulated. But we should protect and champion the benefits they have brought to the wider world.

Join us on November 1st, hear the arguments, and make up your own mind.

Speakers for the motion

Wendy Hall

Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and Executive Director of the Web Science Institute. Together with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, she co-founded the Web Science Research Initiative. She was a founding member of the European Research Council, and has served as a member of the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and as a member of the Global Commission on Internet Governance. She is currently co-chair of the UK government’s Review into Artificial Intelligence.

Luke Johnson

Entrepreneur and former chairman of Channel 4. He has run businesses including Pizza Express, Patisserie Valerie, Gail’s, Belgo and The Ivy. He is now Chairman of private equity house Risk Capital Partners LLP, and writes a weekly column on business for The Sunday Times.

Speakers against the motion

Adam Cohen

Adam Cohen is Google’s head of economic policy in Europe. Formerly, he was an economics correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, based in London and Brussels. He has an AB from Harvard University and a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

Justus Haucap

Chair of the German Monopolies Commission from 2008 to 2012. Founding director of the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics at Heinrich-Heine-University, and a regular adviser on competition and antitrust issues to the European Parliament and the German Ministry of Economics and Energy. He has been named one of Germany’s 20 leading economists for the last four years in a row by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s leading daily newspaper.


Nik Gowing

Presenter, BBC World News.


Speakers are subject to change.