It is time to call the tech companies to account. In the space of just ten years, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have become the biggest companies on the planet and have accrued a level of power that threatens us all. They control our data, warp our democratic discourse, and exert increasing dominance over our markets. No wonder we are in the middle of a long-awaited ‘techlash’ against the technology giants. Look at the EU’s recent crackdown on tax avoidance by Amazon and Apple, or its record €2.4 billion fine of Google. In the UK, the Committee on Standards in Public Life has just set out guidelines for prosecuting web giants such as Facebook, arguing that they are publishers, not mere ‘platforms’, and therefore responsible for the content they host. Through the influence of ‘network effects’ (whereby the first to dominate a market reaps almost all the rewards), these companies have snuffed out the competition. This matters to everyone – not simply for the sake of healthy markets, but for the democratic wellbeing of all of us. The power of these companies lies not just in their size, but in the 21st century’s most valuable asset, data, the oil of the digital economy, which the tech companies extract freely from us, the users. With so much data and power centralised in the hands of a few West Coast companies, the tech giants have become a serious threat to our basic freedoms and must be broken up. That’s the argument that was made at this major Intelligence Squared debate by the FT’s global business columnist Rana Foroohar and by 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 inevitable upheavals caused by the digital revolution. The real winners of this revolution are not the tech companies but us, the users. Who could now imagine living without the services of Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft? That’s the case that was made in our debate by former head of Facebook’s European politics and government division Elizabeth Linder and competition law expert Pinar Akman. The simple reason these companies have become so huge is that we prefer their services to anyone else’s. Amazon, for example, have served the consumer by keeping prices low – hardly a sign of anti-competitive behaviour. And when it comes to competition, the dominance of today’s tech giants is far from assured. Digital tools and cheap market entry have made it easier than ever for rival startups to launch new online businesses. Tech companies are uniquely vulnerable to changes in fortune. Far from being untamed monopolies, the tech giants face fierce competition from each other. Yes, they should be fairly regulated. But we should champion the benefits they have brought to the wider world.