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Who is really in control of the internet?

 

Who is really in control?

Since the availability of affordable internet access swept the western world at the turn of the century, the tech firms at the heart of that revolution have amassed fortunes. Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook are just a few, but these pioneers of the internet as we know it today have benefitted hugely, and it has not just been money they have accumulated.

All of these companies have also evolved with the internet, using their position of dominance to control emerging opportunities, expanding their influence and in many ways, shaping what we think of as the internet today. Not only that, but with that influence, they haven’t just passively benefitted from opportunities as they present themselves, but actively created ways of exerting more control. While we all enjoy the services these companies provide, so much so that for many people life without Facebook, Google searches or Amazon Prime delivery is almost unimaginable, is this really healthy for us long term?

There is a negative side to all of this, and as these companies have amassed more and more influence and power they have become unassailable, not just in terms of market share but in the way that they operate as a businesses across numerous jurisdictions.

Nothing has highlighted this more than in the European Union, where the politicians are fighting back. None more so than Margrethe Vestager, the European Competition Commissioner, who fined Google a record €2.4 Billion ($2.8 Billion) in the EU’s recent antitrust case against the company. While the gigantic amount of money involved makes the headlines, the underlying reason for the fine is even more important, and places Vestager as one of the most important people in the world today when it comes to our online world.

Already a veteran of taking down huge multinationals, last year she took on Apple, forcing them to pay back taxes to Ireland after Apple was able to shift earnings out of the country. With the result being a €13 Billion ($15.3 Billion) fee for Apple, and more cases underway including a similar focus on the way Amazon pays its taxes across the EU and an investigation into Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp, it is clear that at least in the EU, there is someone taking a stand against what are seen as unfair practises.

 

To give an idea of what is at stake, we can look at the area this recent antitrust move was focused on. If you are looking for a new laptop, you may do a search on Google for ‘Cheap Laptops’, just as you are probably in the habit of doing for most information you need. But what happens when you search for such a commodity? At the top of the list is a series of ads for cheap laptops from Google’s own shopping service, and until this recent move by the EU, there was no sign anywhere these were actually Google Shopping links at all. If that is not an advantage, what is? The outcome of the ruling can be seen on the illustrated search, as now the small ‘By Google’ label for each search lets people know what those search results actually are.

Shopping is of course just the tip of the iceberg, everything you use the service for is commercialised, and we shouldn’t be surprised, as a business they exist to make money, but we should be aware. When searching for an address in Google, we get a nice map of the area, complete with links to local shops, restaurants and so on, all ads that businesses pay Google for. Advertising itself is not a problem, as long as we always know that is what it is. If we know that the first links for our search are not the most relevant, but the ones that Google think will make money, or that we get the map showing us things that Google promote, then we make our choices in an informed way, and surely that is the least we should always expect? When Google’s position gives them so much power to dictate what we see that they can, literally, shape our world view, then transparency is needed more than ever.

It’s not just Google of course, a similar point can be made about Facebook, Amazon and several others. They can control what we see in the digital world, and use their financial muscle to usurp local legislation in the business world. However, Margrethe Vestager has shown that when there is a willingness to look at these operations, it is possible for legislators to fight back. While this antitrust ruling only focuses on Google Shopping, itself a relatively small part of Google’s activities, the precedent is set for looking at other aspects of these giant multinationals, and this includes how they operate and carve up the digital landscape.

It is doubtful though, that a single government could have achieved what the European Competition Commissioner has, both with Google and Facebook, or even before that with Microsoft. In 2009, the same commission ruled that Microsoft was abusing its dominance with the Windows Operating System by packaging the Internet Explorer browser with it, which resulted in Windows including a new op-up on setup called browser choice, asking which one the user wanted. At the time of the ruling Internet Explorer has nearly 60% of the browser market. Today it stands at around 12%, with Google’s Chrome browser now leading the way. It is the power of a commission that represents 500 million valuable consumers that allows it to take on the internet giants on any sort of level playing field.

That Google’s product is at the top now also highlights another issue, each of these companies is actively watching such rulings, looking for an opportunity to exploit the vulnerability and take control themselves. This means that the job is never completed, and as perhaps the most influential person in the world with regard to the internet today given her position, Margrethe Vestager has a lot more work to do.

When it comes to control of the digital world, Google, Facebook and others have had a lot of freedom, but it is clear that the European Union legislators have the political and financial muscle to push back, and in doing so, shape the future of the internet itself.

02 November 2017

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