Once associated with diverse collaboration and open access, the internet stands far from the original doctrines which it promised. Quickly commercialised, network effects and little governance have seen the concentration of power and influence on the internet to a few tech companies. Largely unchallenged until the recent movement of ‘techlash’, the blatant lack of diversity in the development and market of the internet harms both individuals and society. Few companies dominating a lucrative market, known as monopolies, are generally concerning as they have the ability to control the market, with lower-quality products, on which consumers are forced to depend. However, the lack of diversity or options for consumers on the internet poses a far greater threat than usual markets. Big Tech’s anti-competitive behaviour leaves users with little choice but to use their platforms and surrender their data, leaving them with colossal user information (Göldi, 2020, pg. 55). The lack of diversity through Big Tech concentration harms users through data surveillance, user manipulation(Smyth, S, 2019 pg. 9), annihilating competition and innovation, and controlling the direction of the internet for their own values and benefit. These issues can be rectified through the correction of oversights in the history of the internet.
The history of how the idealist digital playground was monopolised
Crucial to understanding the paradigms of the internet at current, is understanding how it was created and where we went wrong. In 1995, Microsoft facilitated a technological revolution with the release of ‘Internet Explorer’. While envisioned as a development to expedite file sharing and remote login to resource sharing/collaboration, the internets’ capabilities were quickly employed for economic prospects (Leiner, B 1999, pg.31). Now coined the infamous ‘dot-com bubble’, the mass adoption of the internet stimulated generous funding and investment by Venture Capitalist and the public alike (Daly, 2004, pg. 19). While confidence in the market and dot-com companies were high, the majority had not created a business model that properly utilised or even profited from the promise of the internet. The tech industry was soon comprised of overvalued yet unprofitable companies. This, in addition to rising interest rates and global fear of recession, catalysed the bursting of the overinflated bubble (Wikipedia Contributors, 2019). While most companies were casualties of the crash, Google, eBay and Amazon solidified their place as dominant players in the internet market. Now, a part of the big four (or arguably five), the success of these companies was partly due to their adoption or variation of the platform business model, which is widely used by internet companies today(Mansell, 2003, Ch. 3). The platform business model makes use of the multi-sided access an internet platform can provide, by facilitating exchanges between consumers and producers. Still used today, this model has been pivotal in the development of the internet. However, although with many benefits, this model enabled the assetisation of data. This, in addition to the minimal governance, network effects, and scale economies gave Big Tech the green light for domination, control, and anti-competitive behaviour.
The Platform Business Model
The utilisation of the platform business model enabled ‘The Big Four’ to dominate, as their companies grew exponentially. Resultantly, the internet landscape, user data, and experience of the internet became owned and influenced by four main players; Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. As these companies operate in multisided markets, they had become data-driven and utilised data acquired to build user profiles and more accurately predict consumer needs. Resultantly, these companies have been able to develop superior products which dominate the market (Eleodor, 2019, pg 49-52). Upon having a competitive advantage from navigating the internet in its early phase, these companies also have a competitive advantage due to network effects. Network effects explain how “consumers place a higher value on platforms with a larger number of users”(Kolk & Ciulli, 2020, pg 358), which enables a company with a high market share to continue to grow exponentially. Upon this scale economies further accommodate these companies, as their cost of service decreases with expansion. These nuances which allow companies to propel into dominance are barely regulated, furthering their power, and diversity within the internet.
Shouldn’t this be regulated by now?
Governance issues are another aspect that has furthered the concentration of tech monopolies. Internet Governance defines how or if the internet is regulated (Bygrave 2011). From the genesis of the internet, the new and nuanced marketplace thrived with only voluntary protocols at the whim of political pressure. The internets’ core values of being a free and shareable arena stunted government intervention. This was an opportunity to ensure diversity in the platform market, through pro-competition laws. However, this lack of regulation has conversely created monopolies in the platform marketplace, which hold immense power, as expressed in the antitrust report released by congress “companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons. (Rutkin et al., 2020, pg.6). Their power not only resides over the public, through their tremendous data possession but also unsettlingly also over governments. The government’s dependence on Big Tech user data for surveillance has influenced its blind-sided approach to the issue of monopolies (McChesney, 2013). As the commercialisation of the internet has become lucrative and unlimited for Big Tech, they have ramped up their protection of the data goldmine on which they sit. The laws which structure the internet have allowed companies to be without fear of liability for user protections, and without sanction for anti-competitive behaviour. Recent Big Tech behaviour and lobbying have attested to their desire to gatekeep their power and market share, often buying start-ups which represent competition or innovative ideas (McLeod, 2020). In a desperate effort to restrict laws that would help create diversity and inclusion in the marketplace, Big Tech has spent $95 million lobbying to maintain their monopoly (Edgerton, 2022). According to Sens. Klobuchar and Grassley, The ‘American Choice and Innovation Act’ is an endeavour to encourage fair competition on the Internet and prevent Big Tech “abusing their market power to harm competition, online businesses, and consumers,”.
“ Under the House legislation (H.R. 3816), AICO would forbid covered platforms from:
- “Self-preferencing” their own products at the expense of competitors
- Intentionally disadvantaging other firms’ products or services
- Using non-public data generated by a business user to advantage the covered platform’s own products
- Interfering with pricing decisions set by another business user” (Wikipedia, 2020)
These laws are monumental and will work towards correcting the societal and individual consequences that a lack of diversity in tech has.
What is so bad about these tech monopolies?
While seemingly unthreatening, the concentration of power by Big Tech poses concerns for individuals and society as a whole. Firstly, the concentration of power harms small businesses and innovation. Big Tech is known for buying and killing start-ups that threaten any degree of their services. This harms society as diversity in the marketplace offers innovation and development, as new companies offer a potentially more efficient or better way of doing things. However, when a Big Tech company buys a start-up, they only take elements of the product which suit their direction, thus squandering ideas that are not in alignment with their direction. Society could potentially benefit from ideas that have been dismissed, and these diverse perspectives may offer solutions to problems beyond the goals of Big Tech. Upon this, their anti-competitive behaviour burdens small businesses, as they use their power and money to interfere with intentionally disadvantage other firms through strategies to undermine competition (Hendrickson & Galston, 2019). Upon this, their power in addition to their access to data not only means they determine the directions and capabilities of platforms services within their vision but can also get away with unethical practices, through harmful algorithms and security and privacy breaches (Toscano, 2021). The lack of diversity in the platform market means that Big Tech has comprehensive profiles of users, and can predict what information they would like to interact with to optimise their experience and length of time on the platform. The harmful repercussions of this are that beliefs are reinforced and amplified inside a closed community. This can intensify dangerous beliefs and values related to “polarization, fake news, filter bubbles, echo chambers, changes in human cognition, discrimination and bias, and surveillance and challenges related to a lack of privacy” (Sætra et al., 2021). Finally a key concern with the market concentration and ownership of data is privacy and surveillance violations. There is a lack of transparency on how data is used, and users have no control or ownership of their personal data and its applications (Hutchinson, 2022). Often, data is used for tech profiling, data discrimination and automated decision-making, with the goal of profiling customers (Kaltheuner & Bietti, 2018, pg. 3). This assetisation of personal data leaves users with little choice but to be dehumanised and manipulated, as they are dependent and have little choice but to use Big Tech platforms.
Diversity in all forms offers a greater perspective of problems, providing solutions that are beneficial beyond what suits an exclusive group of people and their ideologies. Lack of competition is historically unfavorable for consumers’ sake, although the concentration in the tech and data industry has far greater implications for society. While the history of the internet and its initial intentions provides an explanation of how we created these threatening monopolies, this does not mean we should accept where we are today. The neglect in governing these corporations can be corrected. Ownership and knowledge of one’s personal data should be at the behest of its owner. One should wonder if these companies were given the same intimidation, aggression, and outright bullying behavior that they commit at their genesis – would they outlast the anti-competitive behavior and be able to provide the world with their innovative ideas?
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