Experiencing technical difficulties? You aren’t alone. While it is safe to say public trust in large technology companies (Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft) has eroded over the past decade due to several high-profile exposés and consequent investigations into their business models, a mathematical truth is that the market share of these companies has only grown over the same timeframe. This kind of dominance is nearly unprecedented, and begs the question of why antitrust policies have not displayed the dynamism necessary to cope with the information age.
While the shortlist of companies listed above (The Big Five) are distinct from one another in their operations and offerings, what they share is the access to our personal data. The commercialization of this data is frequently a point of contention in its societal implications such as violations of privacy and the algorithmic influence of public opinion, but it also has role in how monopolization has changed from its industrial origins.
Policies designed to prevent unfair consolidation in an industry are derived from the understanding that monopolies cause harm to the consumer through higher prices, reduced quality, or restricted output. In industries with tangible offerings such as manufacturing, these definitions of harm are quite comprehensive. However, when applied to the technology firms, these categories of harm fail to cover the negative possibilities of Big Tech’s influence on the consumer and the marketplace.
Consider the role of quality in technology. While you might be inclined to think about web design, speed, and ease of use, the level of privacy offered is also an element of quality. Having fewer companies competing for data means that there is less incentive to offer increased privacy protection for customers as a method of differentiation. If we were to consider the level of privacy as a measure of quality, then surely concentrated control over privacy that by consequence depresses the standards that are offered is of harm to the consumer.
The lack of competition in these data driven companies has also contributed to stagnancy in how the economic value of data is defined. Despite the benefit consumers gain through the free use of services such as Google Search or Facebook, it is difficult to justify the trade-off between the use of these services and the data provided through their use when we consider how much these companies make off commercializing our information.
Consumers’ lack of knowledge regarding their data and its worth hugely benefits incumbent technology companies, who have shown little initiative in clarifying the obscure value of personal information to their business. This is ironic when considering that these same companies seem more than able to lay out a price and demand payment for access to this data from advertisers. For an industry known for innovation in technology, they have shown little creativity in the economic sense. With their powerful position undermining the possibility of new entrants who could offer compensation for data, this is of harm to the consumer who would surely hold out for a service offering payment for their information.
In the midst of a technological revolution, it is beginning to become apparent that the consumer has been left behind. While Big Tech rebukes much of the criticism they receive by citing the connective power of their services, their inexpensiveness, and the neutrality of the internet as a leveler of opportunities for businesses to enter any number of industries, the status quo of technology shows tremendous capacity for improvements that never seem to arrive.
Antitrust policies designed to protect the consumer must do so both in the short and long run, adapting over time. This must be exhibited through an increased understanding of competitive advantages in tech, and the degree of choice consumers have when engaging with these companies; a mandate of antitrust that has remained prescient is its goal to prevent the effect of monopoly on autonomy and choice. At a crossroads between the consolidation or democratization, understanding the applications of data and the economic incentives guiding its use are key to judging whether the current situation of market dominance is helping or harming the users of technology.
Ben is a Commerce student minoring in Philosophy at Dalhousie University in his fourth year of study. He has held positions in public accounting, corporate finance, and financial risk management. Ben’s interests include business law and government policy. He is a goalkeeper on the Dalhousie Men’s Soccer Team.
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