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(Anti) trust me, I’m a tech company

Navigating anti-trust laws

As yet another freely-available piece of social technology launches, with an ‘AR’ version of Google Maps, ‘Big Tech’ itself seems in need of some navigation skills, as it faces multiple break-up calls.

This week Makan Delrahim, the US Department of Justice’s anti-trust lead, issued a stark warning to the tech giants that they should prepare for scrutiny over alleged anti-competitive practices. To emphasise the point, he invoked past monopolies in Standard Oil, Microsoft and AT&T, insisting these had been smashed to the clear benefit of consumers.  “Obviously there is something going on in terms of monopoly,” echoed President Trump. “The dozens of companies who have been quietly venting in Silicon Valley can begin to form a single-file line around the D.O.J.,” said Luther Lowe, policy chief at digital review platform, Yelp.

The strike against ‘big tech’ comes from multiple directions. The so-called “hipster antitrust” movement is an ironic dig at the extent to which some concerns are more cultural than economic. Equally it has long been held that the swingeing fines handed down to Silicon Valley’s finest by EU Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager, are little more than an European version of the muscular trade policy now being ruthlessly applied by the US against Huawei.

Response? It is ironic that the internet, considered one of the most powerful free-market forces in human history, has produced such tech monopolies. Yet, regardless of the perceived power of Big Tech, the question remains whether a break-up aligns with consumer interests. Whether it’s through price comparison sites or bridging cultural divides through instant translation services, technology companies have delivered unparalleled consumer and social advances for free. So why is it apparently so hard to pin-point their social value?

Impact? As Facebook prepares to launch its own currency, it’s hard to escape the impression that the tech giants now pose an almost existential challenge to the power of government and the nation state. But equally tech’s networked power is distributed among the masses, and as such it’s perhaps more socially acceptable than the often-concentrated power exerted by governments and institutions.

However, if big tech has a big problem in challenging the notion that it is anti-competitive, what’s the solution? The world’s productivity puzzle may provide the answer. If technology companies can demonstrably help drive global growth through helping us work faster and smarter, they might stand a better chance of retaining their place on the map.