New York: In the last week or two, I’ve read several thought-provoking pieces about giant technology companies that have grown into monopolies and perhaps should be broken up like the old AT&T.
Cries of monopoly are not a new phenomenon for tech. Just ask Google. But this latest round of hand-wringing feels different.
For one, it’s not just coming from the usual anti-corporate worrywarts; people from deep in the Silicon Valley hive mind are among those concerned about whether a handful of businesses have become too big for the industry’s own good. And two, it’s not a single tech titan that people fear has grown dangerously powerful, but at least three—Google, Facebook and Amazon—at once.
Tech titans’ dominance is an inescapable subject in Silicon Valley, and it seems no one is immune from fears of being run over. “As a smaller company relative to the tech giants ... it’s not negotiable that we have to move really, really quickly ... Otherwise you get eliminated,” Pinterest’s CEO said on a recent episode of Bloomberg’s Decrypted podcast.
And Pinterest is not a tiny start-up but a company valued at $11 billion. The power of technology giants is even too much for a merely big company.
A favourite concept in tech circles is Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory, which lays out why the big in technology tend to get even bigger, although in ways different from a nasty monopolist that uses its power to force up prices. People don’t pay Google parent company Alphabet Inc. and Facebook Inc. for anything, so there is no price gouging. Product prices at Amazon might go down, not up, and shopping there is convenient. People like using Google, Facebook and Amazon.com Inc.
The tech giants have monopolies by popular choice.
That doesn’t mean their dominance can’t take its toll. If you have a product and it is not for sale on Amazon—or if it’s not available for free shipping to Prime customers—it might as well not exist.
If you record a video and the algorithms at Google and Facebook don’t give it prominence, it is invisible. Facebook is harnessing its nearly 2 billion users and army of developers to try to murder Snapchat.
One of the most interesting pieces about technology I have read this year was from an unlikely source: the Yale Law Journal. The article in January argues that US legal doctrine became too narrowly focused on higher consumer prices as evidence of monopoly power and therefore is ill-equipped to deal with today’s technology superpowers. (The piece was about Amazon, but elements of it were applicable broadly to the internet economy. It’s worth reading alone for the reference to a Supreme Court case about pie.)
The idea is that these network effects—the growing usefulness of an online service as it gains more users, consumer data and suppliers—can be just as damaging as jacking up supermarket prices.
It’s hard to imagine our lawmakers trying a Glass-Steagall Act to separate Amazon’s retail business from its marketplace operation, as the Yale article suggests. But it is clear the fears about tech’s Too Powerful to Fail are only getting worse.