Government and governance, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | The World, Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific

30 May 2019

With the Internet rapidly becoming a centralised network of megacorporations, online freedoms that users currently take for granted could be at risk, Rajnesh Singh writes.

Global unease from the increasing concentration of power amongst the world’s tech giants is on the rise. With this, the necessity of government intervention is also becoming a more popular topic of conversation.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, recently threw a spotlight on the issue with a proposal that would lead to the breakup of big Silicon Valley platform firms, including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Her speech caught the attention of many.

Regardless, the truth is that the products made by these technology firms are wildly popular everywhere. Much of the world’s population uses a similar set of Internet services daily to text, search, or shop, among other online activities.

A handful of actors play a significant role in our increasingly connected societies. Besides the major Silicon Valley firms, Tencent and Alibaba are also growing their dominance, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, across various service types.

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The debate on the influence of these companies has typically focused on the economics – namely, how they could buy out potential competitors and use their market power to move into other lines of business. Other arguments have included their impact on income inequality, weakened workers’ bargaining power, and slowing innovation.

This is not just about those companies, however; it is about the Internet at large. As market power becomes increasingly concentrated, the need for society to ponder the implications of this phenomenon greatens as well.

There is a great possibility that a more centralised Internet could impede its resilience, openness, and diversity – the very properties that have made the Internet thrive.

Many of the biggest platforms run on a ‘total service environment’. This means that they have evolved to provide a range of communications, entertainment, productivity, and lifestyle services to become the ‘one-stop shops’ of the Internet.

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To keep users engaged and to sustain revenue growth, these companies constantly expand into new service and content areas. They are also able to increase their presence in respective markets due to greater data control and network effects.

In fact, the Internet Society’s continuous research into the area, spearheaded by our flagship Global Internet Report 2019, shows that trends of consolidation are taking place at levels other than just application.

Access provision, such as Internet Service Providers and mobile network operators, and service infrastructure, such as the hosting and distribution of content, match these trends too.

As a result, only a small number of big tech companies truly have an impact on its open, collaborative, and interoperable nature. Organisational scale and market share play significant roles in deciding the openness of the Internet – on which the technology depends.

The growing use of total service environments puts more of the Internet’s functionality and interoperability in the hands of a select few whose interests may not be in promoting online diversity.

Moreover, future innovation, services, and applications are likely to depend on the availability of a small set of proprietary platforms and services, rendering them less resilient and reliable in supporting further innovation.

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There are clear benefits to operating at scale, including providing users with unified and seamless experiences. However, it is unclear what the impact of centralisation will be on innovation, entrepreneurship, and, importantly, competition.

The Internet is meant to empower its users. This underpins its social value grounded in its ability to allow users to connect, innovate, and share – and even build trust – amongst one another. If current trends continue unabated, these cornerstones will be susceptible to the negative impacts of consolidation.

This is not necessarily a call for policymakers to regulate, which in turn could prevent consumers from using the popular products they most appreciate. In fact, measures against consolidation could create unintended consequences both for markets and the Internet.

Before society decides if, or how, it should regulate big tech, it must better understand how increased consolidation may shape the future of the Internet. Only then can the world preserve its most ground-breaking technology.

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