May 122017

An interview with Media scholar Jonathan Taplin, author of the new book Move Fast and Break Things, on the Pro-Market website poses some interesting questions about the direction of the digital economy and innovation as market power coalesces around the big four internet giants. 

This power is particularly marked in online media with Facebook and Google pocketing most of the global advertising spend which leaves little for content creators.

I kept coming back to these three—Google, Facebook, and Amazon. All have extraordinary market shares. Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising and an 80-plus percent market share in Android. Amazon has a 74 percent market share in e-books, and Facebook controls 70-plus percent of mobile social media when you add Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. What more empirical evidence does one need to prove concentration?

Over the past decade we’ve seen the power of the big four online gatekeepers growing although ironically Apple’s light seems to be dimming as the company’s innovative vision fades following Steve Jobs’ passing.

The monopoly problem is broader than just the tech industry though, as The Atlantic pointed out last year, market dominating corporations are suppressing innovation throughout the US. The problem is even greater in Australia and some other countries.

The rise of the monopolies shouldn’t be a surprise as the neo-liberal policies of the United States and most of the western world for the last 40 years have been largely focused on increasing the wealth and power of corporations and their managers. It’s fair to say those policies have been successful.

Where we go next is the big question. An economy dominated, and suffocated, by a handful of well connected and powerful corporations is not going to drive wealth creation, particularly in a world where more businesses functions are being automated.

One short term step may be to break up the monopolies, something that Taplin himself suggests.

This just goes to show how quickly the ground is shifting. I now have a piece coming out in the New York Times that explores the idea of breaking them up, but when writing the book, I tried to be reasonable. I thought no one would buy the idea of breaking them up. And now people are raising that idea.

While that’s a start there’s vastly more that needs to be done from bankruptcy reform – the last 40 years have seen governments make it harder for small businesses and households to seek financial protection – through to intellectual property reform.

Generational change may turn out to be the solution though as the lucky generation of business and government leaders – those born between 1935 and 55 – responsible for the ideology and policy that allowed such an accumulation of corporate power move on.

  One Response to “Monopolies and innovation”

  1. Groan.

    These companies are big but they aren’t monopolies. There are alternatives available to their products/services and they are purchased with discretionary spend.

    If we were to break up these companies, who would make the decision to do so, using what criteria and with what democratic mandate?

    The ENTIRE point of free markets are that businesses should be allowed to fail and be replaced by more efficient businesses. How do we know these businesses won’t eventually become so bloated that they’ll be “Ubered” by some new disruptive business?

    If we we intervene, we’ll never know.

    The modern answer to every perceived problem is more government. It’s worked out so well for us so far, eh?

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