What “the big five” are selling — or not selling, as in the case of free services like Google or Facebook — is access. As we use their platforms, the corporate giants are collecting information about every aspect of our lives, our behaviour and our decision-making. All of that data gives them tremendous power. And that power begets more power, and more profit.
On one hand, the data can be used to make their tools and services better, which is good for consumers. These companies are able to learn what we want based on the way we use their products, and can adjust them in response to those needs.
“It enables certain companies with orders of magnitude more surveillance capacity than rivals to develop a 360-degree view of the strengths and vulnerabilities of their suppliers, competitors and customers,” says Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of Maryland and author of Black Box Society.
Access to such sweeping amounts of data also allows these giants to spot trends early and move on them, which sometimes involves buying up a smaller company before it can become a competitive threat. Pasquale points out that Google/Alphabet has been using its power “to bully or take over rivals and adjacent businesses” at a rate of about “one per week since 2010.”
But it’s not just newer or smaller tech companies that are at risk, says Taplin. “When Google and Facebook control 88 per cent of all new internet advertising, the rest of the internet economy, including things like online journalism and music, are starved for resources.”
Traditionally, this is where the antitrust regulators would step in, but in the data economy it’s not so easy. What we’re seeing for the first time is a clash between the concept of the nation state and these global, borderless corporations.