This post is about the omnipotence of Big Tech. So far, resistance mainly results in regulation of its effects. The core of the problem, the monopoly position of the technology giants, is only marginally touched. What is needed is a strict antitrust policy and a government that once again takes a leading role in setting the technology agenda.
A cause of concern
In its recent report, the Dutch Rathenau Institute calls the state of digital technology a cause for concern. The institute advocates a fair data economy and a robust, secure and available Internet for everyone. This is not the case now. In fact, we are getting further and further away from this. The risks are pressing more each day: Inscrutable algorithms, deepfakes and political micro-targeting, inner-city devastation through online shopping, theft of trade secrets, unbridled data collection by Google, Amazon and Facebook, poorly paid taxi drivers by Uber and other service providers of the gig economy, the effect of Airbnb on the hotel industry and the energy consumption of bitcoin and blockchain.
The limits of legislation
Numerous publications are calling on the government to put an end to the growing abuse of digital technology. In his must read 'the New Digital Deal' Bas Boorsma states: In order to deploy digitalization and to manage platforms for the greater good of the individual and society as a whole, new regulatory approaches will be required… (p. 46) . That is also the view of the Rathenau Institute, which lists three spearheads for a digitization strategy: Strong legislative frameworks and supervision, value-based digital innovation based on critical parliamentary debate and a say in this for citizens and professionals.
More than growing inconvenience
In recent years, the European Commission has launched a wide range of legislative proposals, such as the Digital Services Act package, the Digital Market Act and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, these measures do not get to the kernel of the problem. The near-monopoly position of Big Tech is the proverbial monster behind the curtain. The Rathenau Institute speaks in furtitive terms of "the growing inconvenience" of reliance on American and Chinese tech giants. Even the International Monetary Fund is clearer in stating that the power of Big Tech inhibits innovation and investment and increases income inequality. Due to the power of the big technology companies, society is losing its grip on technology.
To curb the above-mentioned risks, the problem must first be named and measures must then be tailored accordingly. This is done in two recent books, namely Shoshana Zuboff's 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power' (2019) and Cory Doctorow's 'How to destroy surveillance capitalism' (2021). Zuboff describes in detail how Google, Amazon and Facebook collect data with only one goal, to entice citizens to buy goods and services: Big Tech's product is persuasion. The services — social media, search engines, maps, messaging, and more — are delivery systems for persuasion.
Big tech's monopoly
The unprecedented power of Big Tech is a result of the fact that these companies have become almost classic monopolies. Until the 1980s, the US had strict antitrust legislation: the Sherman's act, notorious for big business. Ronald Reagan quickly wiped it out in his years as president, and Margareth Thatcher did the same in the UK, Brian Mulroney in Canada and Helmut Kohl in Germany. While Sherman saw monopolies as a threat to the free market, Reagan believed that government interference threatens the free market. Facebook joins in if it sees itself as a 'natural monopoly': You want to be on a network where your friends are also. But you could also reach your friends if there were more networks that are interoperable. Facebook has used all economic, technical and legal means to combat the latter, including takeover of potential competitors: Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.
In the early 21st century, there was still a broad belief that emerging digital technology could lead to a better and more networked society. Bas Boorsma: The development of platforms empowered start-ups, small companies and professionals. Many network utopians believed the era of 'creative commons' had arrived and with it, a non-centralized and highly digital form of 'free market egalitarianism' (New Digital Deal, p.52). Nothing has come of this: Digitalization-powered capitalism now possesses a speed, agility and rawness that is unprecedented (New Digital Deal, p.54). Even the startup community is becoming one big R&D lab for Big Tech. Many startups hope to be acquired by one of the tech giants and then cash in on millions. As a result, Big Tech is on its way to acquire a dominant position in urban development, the health sector and education, in addition to the transport sector.
Thanks to its monopoly position, Big Tech can collect unlimited data, even if European legislation imposes restrictions and occasional fines. After all, a lot of data is collected without citizens objecting to it. Mumford had already realized this in 1967: Many consumers see these companies not only as irresistible, but also ultimately beneficial. These two conditions are the germ of what he called the megatechnics bribe.
The only legislation that can break the power of Big Tech is a strong antitrust policy, unbundling the companies, an absolute ban on acquisitions and rigorous taxation.
Technology does not develop autonomously. At the moment, Big Tech is indisputably setting the technology agenda in the Western Hemisphere. China is a different story. With Mariana Mazzocato, I believe that governments should take back control of technological development, as they did until the end of the last century. Consider the role of institutions such as DARPA in the US, the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and TNO in the Netherlands. Democratic control is an absolute precondition!
In the chapter 'Digitally just cities' in my e-book 'Cities of the future: Always humane, smart where it helps' (link below), I show, among other things, what Facebook, Amazon and Google could look like after a possible unbundling.
Yes indeed. Amsterdam should create more room for all those small tech companies that work for the good of society in the shadow of Bigg Tech. One of the instruments is its purchasing policy. The Citymart platform has already been used by over 100 cities to enable pre-commercial procurement, which opens up channels to a wide range of small and medium companies:
What is the role of the city and local government to protect and empower their citizens in the digital age? Amsterdam is full of whatsapp neighborhood watch signs, embedding a remote and unaccountable corporate entity with an unsavory business model into the very fabric of the city. Yet there are very usable open source messenger alternatives in Signal and similarly alternative decentralized social media platforms such as Mastodon that are fairly easy to setup. Let us not forget that cities is the setting in which the freedoms and rights of the individual were first defended. A smart city is above all a free self-sovereign city, no?