Digital power players

The problem and the power of tech monopolies

This is the fourth of four papers exploring power and accountability in the data economy. These will set the stage for future interventions to ensure power becomes more evenly distributed. This paper explores the rise of the tech giants, and how they are using tactics both new and old to ensure that they maintain and amplify their power.

Our research so far has identified a range of overarching themes around how power and accountability is changing as a result of the rise of the digital economy. These can be summarised into four key points:

  • Although the broader digital economy has both concentrated and dispersed power, data is very much a concentrating force.
  • A mutually reinforcing government-corporation surveillance architecture – or data panopticon – is being built, that seeks to capture every data trail that we create.
  • We are over-collecting and under-protecting data.
  • The data economy is changing our approach to accountability from one based on direct causation to one based on correlation, with profound moral and political consequences.

This four-part series explores these areas by reviewing the existing literature and conducting interviews with respected experts from around the world.

The tech giants have become essential to our modern digital lives and many of us interact with them on a daily basis. Although many of these companies started in garages, with ambitions to disrupt existing businesses and power structures, they are now the dominant companies seeking to maintain their position. But now that algorithms wield such influence, we have a responsibility not to misuse them.

  • We need to redefine monopoly and monopsony to tackle the tech giants.
  • Tech company founders are using novel share structures to allow them to raise money without ceding control of the company to investors.
  • Tech companies are using old tactics of lobbying and acquisition to maintain their power.
  • By winning the customer with cheap prices and free services they have embedded themselves in our consciousness as our friend’.
  • Existing remedies to tackle their dominant positions are unlikely to work against global tech giants.

The largest and most valuable companies have always been powerful in society and exerted significant control over the economic and political environment that they operate in. In this final edition of our overview of the data economy, we will look at these new mega corporations and their superstar founders to uncover the old and new ways in which they exert their power.

Image: JD Lasica (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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