The gilded age of digital monopolies

IN recent weeks, a series of attempts have been made by governments in different countries, notably Australia and the United States, to curb the overweening dominance of two of the biggest digital monopolies on the planet. Unlike many parts of the world where a consensus has emerged that the unrestrained dominance of Alphabet (the parent company of Google, YouTube and the Android operating system on mobile phones) and Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram) is terrible for humankind, the Indian government has chosen to go rather soft on these two giant conglomerates who have invested in this country’s biggest player in the telecommunications and Internet services market, Reliance Jio, headed by India’s and Asia’s richest person, who is also one of the world’s richest people.

On December 17, Google’s overwhelming dominance over online search came under the broadest attack so far in the US as a third anti-trust suit in two months was filed by 38 attorneys general against the Internet giant. It has been accused of misusing its powers to pilfer other companies’ content for its own results and starve its competitors of vital traffic. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said in a statement: “Google has more data on consumers, and more variety of information, than perhaps any entity in history.”

Our unprecedented dependence on two of the biggest global corporate groups was underlined on December 14 when many of Google’s services including Gmail collapsed for around 45 minutes. The consternation it created among billions of users across the world also highlighted how we have become slaves to this powerful provider of services like instantaneous electronic mail, the use of search engines that collate and curate information of every kind, location maps that can guide us everywhere and make payments, besides creating and viewing audio-visual content.

On December 9, for the first time ever, the Australian government tabled legislation that could compel Google and Facebook to pay media organisations for distributing their content on their search engines and newsfeeds. It took three years for the government in that country to ask the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate the activities of these two groups. The commission’s report, released after a probe lasting a year and a half, was unambiguous in its conclusion that the fact that Facebook and Google garnered more than 80% of the total digital advertising was bad for readers, viewers and listeners of news as well as information creators and providers.

For decades, these two organisations have strenuously tried to contend that they are technology companies, not media companies or publishers, despite overwhelming evidence that more and more individuals are using these platforms to access every kind of information, especially news, that is aggregated by them. Unlike media companies, these ‘tech’ giants do not contribute anything for research, news-gathering, design services, staff salaries and so on. At the same time, they appropriate a huge share (often over 90%) of the total advertising revenue generated. In the US, Facebook and Google together account for between 90% and 95% of the total advertising revenue at present — and in that country, digital advertising revenue currently accounts for more than the total advertising expenditure on all other ‘traditional’ media: television, print, radio and outdoor.

Interestingly, the day the Australian government tabled its Bill to make Facebook and Google pay for distributing media content, the US federal government, together with almost all state governments, supported a lawsuit by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) seeking to divest Facebook of its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp, after approving these acquisitions in 2012 and 2014, respectively. The FTC argued that Facebook’s conduct was anti-competitive and aimed at entrenching and maintaining its monopoly, leading a company spokesperson to describe the lawsuit as ‘revisionist history’.

Google is also facing anti-trust action initiated by the US Justice Department. Regulators in the European Union have penalised the organisation for abuse of market power and it has ‘happily’ coughed up fines.

The FTC lawsuit may take years to get resolved like the US government’s legal action against Microsoft for monopolising the market for web browsers. However, what is apparent is that there is considerable bipartisan support today for the move, even if for different reasons. Two documentaries on Netflix — The Great Hack on the misuse of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica and The Social Dilemma on the addictive and deleterious effects of social media, besides the pioneering book by Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile/Hachette, 2019), have extensively documented and analysed how “a global system of behaviour modification” is threatening human nature in the 21st century just as industrial capitalism did in the previous century.

Where does India figure in all these developments? Our country is the biggest market for these two digital giants since they have been shut out of China. The role that Facebook has played in nurturing and propagating hate speech, incendiary content and disinformation in our country to further the interests of the ruling regime has been emphasised in a series of articles published from August onwards in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Buzzfeed, Reuters and The fact that this digital platform has been complicit in furthering the interests of India’s ruling dispensation had been documented earlier, including by this writer who co-authored and published The Real Face of Facebook in India: How social media have become a propaganda weapon and disseminator of disinformation and falsehood before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Whereas the Indian government periodically makes a few noises about the need to check disinformation on social media, supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been way ahead of others in spreading fake news and hate speech. Although Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad alleged that Facebook has helped the liberal-Left in the country, across the world and also in India, Facebook has supported right-wing regimes, the powerful and the rich who have big bucks to splurge on digital content. The business model of these profit-maximising platforms is clear: content should go viral irrespective of whether the information is true or false, hateful or benign.

The Internet no longer democratises and empowers. It intrudes into our lives and manipulates our thoughts and behaviour. The earlier more Indians realise the dark side of these digital monopolies, the better.

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