Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are too big. But what’s the right way to tame the giants?by James Ball / January 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
On each day of 2018 Apple sold almost 600,000 iPhones, Amazon made more than $500m in sales, some 1.47bn people logged onto Facebook, while there were 3.5bn searches on Google. The oldest of these companies, Apple, was founded in 1976, and just a decade ago all four were seen as scrappy—if fast-growing—outsiders. Today, even after Apple’s recent market travils, they are four of the biggest companies on the planet.
Any set of companies growing so big this rapidly would be cause for concern. But in the case of the technology giants, “concern” doesn’t quite cut it. Facebook is the biggest platform on the planet, and has been implicated in efforts from Russia and others to poison the online information ecosystem. Retailers and suppliers alike fear Amazon’s market power, while Google’s dominance of search feels all but unassailable—and Apple has shown its ability to flex its power over app and music markets, not just the mobile phone market it most obviously plays in.
No surprise, then, that columnists, campaigners and multiple parliaments around the world have floated the idea that the tech giants need to be broken up. But what might that look like? And is it even the right answer? We might, I’d suggest, do better to focus on something even bigger than the scale of these companies themselves. Namely, the unimaginably vast scale of the data—terabytes and terabytes of it—on which the foundation of each of these empires is built. This is data about us, our lives, our interests, our locations, and our connections. And it is the single thing we need to keep in mind if we want to come up with a practical plan to keep the tech giants’ power in check.
The internet poses the biggest threat of monopoly in over a century, since the height of the Gilded Age. That period, from the 1870s to the early 1900s, was born on the back of the railways, a technological innovation that was not only at risk of monopoly itself, but which also created monopolies. By speeding up, and making vastly more efficient, the transportation of materials—in much the same way that the web has facilitated the dissemination…