Many believe the Internet is and will continue to be an open and democratic space. But the reality is that it’s increasingly dominated by a handful of companies that control our digital autonomy.
By Zeid Nasser
Each month, Facebook is used by one-third of the world’s population and Google’s online properties receive over 50 billion visits. While in commerce, studies show that 55 percent of all searches for online products start with Amazon, which also accounts for more than half of all retail growth on the web.
In the past 10 years or so, since the social media revolution began, the global Internet has become beholden to a small number of websites and apps that originated in the United States. Unless you live in China, that is. Facebook has been blocked there since 2009 and WhatsApp is severely limited. But this has resulted in the creation of its own oligarchy of non-American sites such as Weibo and WeChat that fill broadly the same role.
As the Internet matures, with smaller players either exiting or being consolidated within these giants of the digital age, these few companies are able to shape every aspect of our lives including our consumption patterns and political opinions.
Each of these Internet giants dominates its own domain. Soon, Amazon could decide what is or isn’t available to buy worldwide; Netflix could decide what movies and TV shows get produced and watched, therefore limiting what content actually succeeds; Apple can decide which apps run your life; while Wikipedia decides the editorial policy behind all aspects of information on every topic known to humankind.
Apart from the monopolistic business implications of this situation, these giants can exercise massive political and cultural influence, directing world opinion. Even more dangerous is the inability of these platforms to control users or advertisers, specifically non-state actors who are already ‘weaponizing’ these platforms to create world opinions and political outcomes.
The US presidential election and the Brexit vote, last year, highlighted this matter with growing evidence that such platforms, particularly Facebook, have been manipulated by hackers, fake news creators, and politically-motivated groups.
For example, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg recently admitted that Facebook had indeed been manipulated and that his company is turning over to the US Congress more than 3,000 politically themed advertisements that were bought by suspected Russian operatives.
US lawmakers are now working to change clauses in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which absolves media channels from the responsibility for what passes through their servers. The bosses of these companies can no longer claim that it’s just the algorithms which decide. The infrastructure these companies built to extract user’s data for ad-targeting purposes is both the reason for their riches and this subsequent government intervention.
The European Union is now very active in trying to curb the power of these giants and in demanding they share information with governments and do not engage in anti-competitive practices that prevent anyone else from building a large Internet following or revenue stream.
Starting with the ‘right to be forgotten’ issue with Google, in 2014, the EU has been working to keep the power of these companies in check if they intend to continue to do business in Europe. Furthermore, the EU has already fined Facebook 110 million euros for “providing misleading information” about its takeover of WhatsApp and has resulted in a massive 2.4 billion euros fine for “abusing its monopoly in search.” These fines could just be the start, as the world comes to realize how political big technology companies have become.
Is this the correct course of action, or should the world just sit back and let Internet capitalism reign and see where it ends up taking our society? Perhaps the Internet giants have indeed become too big for their own good. We may be witnessing a new era in which their power is curtailed or controlled for the greater good. Commentators are already saying the technology industry could be coming to the end of its remarkable run of unchecked freedom to create and direct the change in our lives. Silicon Valley could soon be humbled.
Torn between freedom and responsibility, these companies will wrestle with governments to shape the next decade of our digital existence. Hopefully it will be for the better.