The easy way to rein in Facebook and Google: stop them gobbling up competitors
Few of us who have survived the last year aren't grateful for technology.
Zoom, email, connected workplaces, and solid internet connections at home have made it possible to work, shop, study and carry on our lives in a way that wouldn't have been possible had the pandemic hit, say, 20 years earlier.
But parts of big tech — the parts that track us and drive us to think dangerous and antisocial things just so we keep clicking — are doing us enormous damage.
Although it might seem like we can't have the best of both worlds — the connectivity without the damage — I reckon we can. But we are going to have to change the way we think about big tech.
The first thing is to recognize that big tech is intrinsically weak. Yes, weak. The second is that it has only become strong each time we have let it.
The firms that came before them were indeed weak in the sense that they didn't have a guaranteed future. Think back to Netscape, Myspace, MSN and all those other montholiths we were told at the time would become natural monopolies.
It switched what it showed away from news towards posts that inflamed and enraged people in 2018, with "unhealthy side effects on important slices of public content" in part because users had begun to interact less with it.
Facebook knew that "we make body image issues worse," in the words of one of its memos, but did little to change the way Instagram worked. In part, this was because teens spent 50% more time on Instagram than Facebook. Instagram looked like the future.
These don't sound like the actions of a company confident of staying on top.
And nor does its initial purchase of Instagram in 2012 when it could have started its photo-sharing service on mobiles, leveraging all that it had.
It couldn't grow anything like as big by itself, because when firms grow beyond a certain size they turn sluggish, bureaucratic.
They are the actions of a hungry company, but not one supremely confident of staying at the top.
Australian academic Stephen King, a former member of Australia's Competition and Consumer Commission and a current commissioner with its Productivity Commission, says we need to apply special tougher rules to takeovers by companies such as Google and Facebook.
Big tech grows bigger by takeovers Usually we only block takeovers where the target is big. Instagram and WhatsApp were small. Instagram reportedly had 13 full-time employees at the time of its takeover, WhatsApp reportedly had 55. Yet Facebook paid billions for them.
In the US and the UK, both takeovers were waived.
Big tech companies can do things with tiny takeover targets others can't. Takeovers can give them access to vast networks of existing users and their data.
In Europe, the authorities were on to this possibility and approved the takeover of WhatsApp only after Facebook informed them it would be "unable to establish reliable automated matching between Facebook users' accounts and WhatsApp users' accounts".
Had Australia been tougher, had the US, the UK and the European Commission been tougher, Facebook and Google would be nothing like the behemoths they have become today. They might have peaked and been losing market share.
We can say no Their future is largely in our hands. For big tech companies able to use the weight of their networks (and only for those companies) we could "just say no" to takeovers. It's hard to think of a reason for one to proceed.
If needed, we could change the law to make "no" the default.
But where the friends are changes every generation.
Facebook and Google know this, which is why they are so keen to take over upstart competitors and emerging platforms in fields they haven't thought of.
If we stopped them, we wouldn't stop them from growing straight away, but we would make it hard for them to fight the natural order in which the new and fashionable displace the old and predictable. It's their deepest fear.
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
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