We find ourselves, again, in a new age of monopoly. The question is: what do we do about it this time?
The answer in a digital future won’t be the same as in the industrial past. Back then, we tackled market power with nationalisation; utility regulation; blocking mergers and acquisitions; and the ultimate intervention, breaking up monopolies. But those tools aren’t right today. Platform monopolies are too complex and too fast—and the economic fundamentals from which their power arises don’t submit to those old policy tools.
So, my advice is this: don’t break up big tech monopolies, open them up.
How? First, we need legal groundwork. Currently, the idea of a “platform” doesn’t exist in law. As a work-around, we govern 21st-century platforms using 19th-century company law, when really these are unprecedented institutions with powers beyond the wildest imaginations of Victorian legislators. So, step one is clear: define the platform in law and build a scaffold.
We must codify new civic responsibilities for platforms
Step two, build a new legal regime on that scaffold. One big aspect of this will relate to interoperability—rules that require major platforms to allow us free passage through their ecosystems. This would include posting and transferring data between platforms, plus allowing entrepreneurs to build services that work across these ecosystems without fear of being cut off.
Another priority is the creation of rules to prevent the data we generate as we move around the internet from being hoarded by private companies. It’s a public good, and a vital source of future innovation. It should be open, in aggregate form, for innovators and researchers to use.
And, thirdly, we must codify new civic responsibilities for platforms. The time is over when the digital world can self-regulate. It must be brought up to the standards of conduct we expect in public spaces—turning the private baronies into digital commons.
This might sound radical, but really, it’s routine. When a new technology emerges, the early decades are often a wild west scramble as private firms and the men (always men) who run them gain powers beyond their legitimacy or the interests of society. So, while our regulatory tools must change, the job for policy remains the same—to mature how we’re using new technologies, so that they work for us all and not just for a narrow elite.
This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.