Pictured: Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence select committee
Few people today have heard of Standard Oil, the giant petrochemical company that a century ago made its founder John Rockefeller wealthier than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos and Google billionaires Sergey Brin and Larry Page are today – combined.
The secret of its success was control. It dominated production, ran all the refineries and pipelines, and owned all the ships, tankers and petrol stations.
It squeezed out competition with ruthless price-cutting until only it was left. Then it hiked its prices.
It took the will of the then US President, the one person more powerful than Rockefeller, to challenge and dismantle Standard Oil’s monopoly in order to promote fair competition.
Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt’s actions bravely set a precedent that led to the break-up of other monopolies, such as those in the railway and airline industries, and the stranglehold AT&T had over the telephone business.
It is a lesson today’s great monopolists – Bezos, Zuckerberg, Brin and Page – should heed.
For their businesses exert ever more control over our everyday lives. They believe their power is unlimited. And, what’s more, the authorities, in the main, are letting them get away with it.
These tech giants give the impression that democratically elected governments can be ignored, that they can use the most private information about millions of us for profit, without our knowledge and all the while treating the obligation of paying tax as optional.
Few people today have heard of Standard Oil, the giant petrochemical company that a century ago made its founder John Rockefeller wealthier than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (pictured), Amazon owner Jeff Bezos and Google billionaires Sergey Brin and Larry Page are today – combined
Theirs is a world where they influence public opinion, taste and choice by the shadowy manipulation of their sites’ algorithms which record our every move online and then use it to make vast sums of money.
These firms assume we have become so dependent on them that they are irreplaceable, an essential part of life like the air we breathe. This is not so. It’s time to fight back.
We can replace these California-based giants if we choose. And, crucially, I believe the world would be a better place for it. The good news is that, at last, world governments have woken up to the dangers.
A series of anti-trust lawsuits has been laid against Facebook and Google in the US courts in a bid to stop their monopolistic behaviour.
The Australian government has taken up the cudgels, too, demanding tech giants pay publishers for sharing content on their sites. Here, the House of Lords Communication Committee has recommended the UK does the same.
It took the will of the then US President, the one person more powerful than Rockefeller, to challenge and dismantle Standard Oil’s monopoly in order to promote fair competition. It is a lesson today’s great monopolists – Bezos (pictured), Zuckerberg, Brin and Page – should heed
Typically, Google (annual revenue £160 billion) has responded by threatening to withdraw its service from Australia – a classic monopolist’s threat.
It would be a great example to us all if the Australians let Google carry out its threat, for the truth is that the issues at stake are central to all our lives – to our personal wellbeing, to our economic stability and to the nature of democracy itself.
The internet’s pioneers saw it as a way to share information, free from government control. How ironic that their creation has now been taken over by unaccountable corporations much bigger and more powerful than most countries.
No one could ever have imagined that an online social-media site could censor the comments of the democratically elected President of the Unites States. But that is exactly what Twitter did to Donald Trump.
Today, even Tim Berners-Lee, the visionary British inventor of the World Wide Web, believes the internet should be regulated before it becomes a dangerous digital dystopia.
A series of anti-trust lawsuits has been laid against Facebook and Google (pictured) in the US courts in a bid to stop their monopolistic behaviour
Meanwhile, we watch our high streets being emptied of shops that have been household names for generations, victims of internet retailers such as Amazon that pay derisory amounts of tax and whose physical presence is merely a few giant warehouse hubs.
These rapacious companies show no obvious loyalty to any community, town or any country. They simply funnel their huge profits around the world using accounting smoke and mirrors.
If they see an advantage in having headquarters in a low-tax country, they’ll move their corporate HQ there – or even just their brass name-plate – while the billionaire bosses remain happily in Silicon Valley. Most insidious is the extraordinary power these behemoths wield over our individual behaviour.
There is much truth in the saying that if an e-product is free, the real product is you. You can see how this works when you shop online. If, for example, you buy a pair of shoes, you’ll then be bombarded with online adverts for shoes.
This is the power of the algorithm, which records your every click in a process that will then try to sell you more – and, what’s more, charges advertisers for the service.
Never underestimate them. The power of these big tech companies is almost limitless. They know everything about us: not just our name, age, date of birth and spending habits but also the identity of our friends, our private online search interests and our political and sexual orientation.
It may seem unthinkable to live in a world without Facebook, Twitter, Google or Amazon (pictured). But along with protecting the environment, it is one of the priorities of our age
But they won’t tell us how they use all this data or give you a share of their profits, in the way that banks do by paying interest on the amount of money you deposit with them. Chillingly, they can also control what news you see.
Search, for example, for anti-vaccine articles on the internet and your iPhone or computer will subsequently show you more of the same – the echo-chamber effect. Click on news about Donald Trump or Joe Biden and soon that is all the news you’ll be fed.
In addition, without the constraints of law and taste by which traditional publishers live, the likes of Google and Facebook are free to use other people’s hard work and information for their own gain. It’s why the Australian regulators want to charge Google and Facebook for the news content they host.
Wilfully opaque and scornful of regulation, web giants blithely allow the spread of hatred and promote material that is damaging to the mental health of the vulnerable. This is profit over public wellbeing and power without responsibility.
Notoriously, Mark Zuckerberg even refused to appear before a House of Commons committee that was investigating fake news.
This is a threat not just to our personal privacy but even to national security. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen how millions of Americans came to believe the lie that Joe Biden ‘stole’ the presidency, leading to armed insurgents storming the US Congress with tragic consequences.
In addition, without the constraints of law and taste by which traditional publishers live, the likes of Google and Facebook (pictured) are free to use other people’s hard work and information for their own gain
For years, Facebook and Twitter have argued they are not publishers but mere ‘content providers’ who cannot be held accountable for what millions of users choose to post. But that wasn’t how these ‘social media’ responded to the Washington riots.
Rejecting their role as mere content providers, they acted as self-styled censors – shutting down the democratically elected President’s Twitter feed. What better illustration could there be of the terrifying power they wield?
The court cases in the US and the actions of the Australian government provide a timely wake-up call and we in Britain have a big opportunity. We should lead international efforts to regulate the digital world. Let’s follow Roosevelt’s audacity, to craft guidelines for the internet to ensure that it is the force for good its founders dreamed of.
The task may be daunting. And it will take worldwide co-operation to make the tech giants abide by the law and pay their fair tax share. But what better time than now, when governments seek ways to repair the huge economic damage caused by coronavirus?
There must be mechanisms and protocols to prevent the anti-democratic spread of misinformation and fake and stolen news, alongside cast-iron protections for legitimate news. These firms must make their sinister algorithms accountable and tell us what information they have on us and how it is used.
It may seem unthinkable to live in a world without Facebook, Twitter, Google or Amazon. But along with protecting the environment, it is one of the priorities of our age. If we are brave enough to do what is right, new businesses will appear that abide by democratic regulation and work for the good of us all.
Google is not the only search engine. Why couldn’t Britain have a search engine of its own, or a British Facebook? The case is overwhelming: it is time to tame the Wild West of the World Wide Web.