Unlimbering Global Anti-Trust Weapons Against Big IT

The internet behemoths have amassed unhealthy power

Looking for good news in 2021 after the horrors of 2020, it is strange to look to the world’s most powerful non-state organization – the Communist Party of China. But the recent actions taken by party bosses against China’s internet behemoth Alibaba and its financial offspring Ant are a sure sign that even such a disciplined authoritarian organization fears the power of such a vast business not totally under its control. Other Chinese internet giants are now under scrutiny.

Although Beijing’s actions are a reminder of the limits of the private sector in China, and particularly of high-profile individuals like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, this should surely be a wakeup call to people and governments in less authoritarian states where political power is very disbursed. Here a few huge-teethed carnivores headed by Google, Facebook and Amazon have gobbled up most potential competitors. They have, whether by design or default, acquired powers which in practice undermine trust, the foundation stone of liberal and democratic government, religious harmony and indeed all stable societies.

They have acquired without our full and express knowledge and consent the minutest details of our daily movements, correspondence, purchases, sexual preferences, to use as and when they wish to profit, unseen, from us.

Many issues are involved in addressing these questions, but the key ones are monopoly practices and rights to privacy. Others include intellectual property – a right much emphasized by western countries in respect of science and engineering but treated with contempt by Google and others in the sphere of news.

In the US, the long-sleepy Federal Trade Commission finally trundled into action in December with an antitrust case against Facebook on grounds of deliberately crushing the competition by one means or another in order to acquire a de facto monopoly in its field. It is not clear if some particular animosity on the part of Donald Trump had any connection to the action. And given the vast sums that all the internet giants funnel into politics and lobbying – not least among their many friends in the Democratic Party, it is far from clear that sustained antitrust action is likely. At least a start has been made in the US. Google is also in the sights of the US Justice Department. Facebook has thus far escaped serious regulation despite the public arrogance displayed by founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Also in the US, a House of Representatives subcommittee has taken aim at Amazon for strong-arm tactics, using its near-monopoly to deny access or sales to book publishers who will not agree to its exploitive terms. Such thuggish behavior also is another form of theft of intellectual property.

In October, a European Union document that was leaked out of Brussels detailed plans by Google to stop or seriously dilute EU legislation which would impede its ability to exploit information it covertly gained from users to make money from digital advertising. These included the sort of things which in some countries might be deemed bribery or blackmail including the full force of Washington-style, multimillion-dollar lobbying campaigns, use of friendly “academics” and think-tanks desperate for funding. Another tactic is trying to make any EU attacks on Google to be seen to driven by anti-Americanism and hence needing to be addressed by US diplomats in Brussels and politicians back home.

The arrogance of Google was even more readily apparent in taking on the Australian government’s attempt to make it pay for news content in the wake of a damning report by Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission. It targeted Google use as well as YouTube to attack the government plan claiming “the way Aussies search every day is at risk from new government regulation.”

Google claims this sort of propagandizing is normal in a democratic country. But Google itself is more like a one-party state. The parent company, Alphabet – which also owns YouTube and DoubleClick – has many shareholders but the two founders have 51 percent of the vote despite holding only 11 percent of the shares. Indeed, this structure is typical of the capture of American capitalism by a few mega-rich groups.

So far, very little progress has been made in struggles against these out-of-control giants. But we can hope that seeds sowed in 2010, whether in Washington, Beijing or Brussels, will flourish. In particular, US president-elect Biden should remember why the US passed its anti-trust act 1890. The law aimed to protect the public from the failure of the market by making it illegal to deliberately destroy fair competition and was used to break up several giants including the John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. President Theodore Roosevelt’s use of it added much to his esteem at the time, and in history.

As for Brussels and Washington, they should have a common aim of breaking monopolies and protecting privacy, issues which transcend nationality in the age of the internet.

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