The regulation of tech monopolies will decide the fate of Western democracies

  • Large tech monopolies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon own wide swaths of the value-creation chain.
  • Their hold on society is significant, making it extremely difficult to regulate.
  • If the economic power of these companies goes unchecked, it will destabilize liberal democracy.
  • Johannes Reck is the founder and CEO of Berlin-based startup GetYourGuide. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

When the global financial crisis slowly subsided in the spring of 2010, tech giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) were collectively valued at just under 450 billion euros by market cap. These companies were drivers of innovation that pointed the way forward, enterprises at the center of a flourishing technological ecosystem with a creative and technology-driven vision.

Over the past decade, the transformation of society’s relationship to these companies is unprecedented. We use the products of the GAFA companies to manage almost our entire professional and private lives. And during the coronavirus crisis, the value of the tech giants have increased even more. The GAFA companies, taken together, currently have a market capitalization of 6 trillion euros, which is about five times as much as the entire German DAX index.

The dominance of the GAFA companies has become so great that individual governments have no choice but to submit themselves to them.

Google and Apple dictated the interface for the Corona app, not the other way around. When Australia wanted to introduce a new law on fair remuneration for its publishing houses, Google unashamedly threatened to switch off its search engine in the country.

It seems that many German and European politicians have given in to the superior power of the GAFA companies. Complicated regulatory issues are not very attractive election campaign topics, after all. This powerlessness is also reflected in the practically nonexistent media debate.

It is my steadfast conviction that how we handle the US tech monopolies will dictate Europe’s future. Never before in the history of our continent have so few companies possessed so much power — never before were they able to exert such a profound influence on our lives.

And even if it seems almost unimaginable – the technological revolution is not yet over. Quite the opposite is true. We are still in the early phases. If we want, we can still make the rules that will shape our future. But the room for the maneuvering needed to do this is shrinking, and time is running out. If we want to know what to do next, then it is vital that we gain an in-depth understanding of the mechanisms by which the tech monopolies operate.

The tech monopolies survive on data, algorithms, and capital

In the 20th century, a company’s wealth came from its factories, machines, and its qualified employees. In Germany and the EU, our entire education and economic systems are designed based on this formula. The problem is that the digital world functions completely differently.

In the digital world customer behavior is evaluated in real time. This allows digital services to be continuously improved and aligned precisely to customer needs and desires. The more data is collected, the better the algorithms work and the more relevant the offers presented to customers become.

Over the past decade, the GAFA companies have built a huge competitive advantage because they control the operating systems, the search engines, the browsers, and the cloud infrastructure. They also own the shopping marketplaces, the communication platforms, the networked household appliances, and the app stores.

To return to our picture of the 20th century, the tech monopolies not only have factories and machines, they also increasingly own the entire infrastructure of the value-creation chain, including all the businesses and all of the communication channels to the customer. With every new customer, this value-creation chain becomes more efficient and more profitable. Competition in the GAFA infrastructure is only allowed for as long as the competitor compensates the monopolist or helps the monopolist towards even more expansive growth.

The capital that the GAFA companies suck out of the system using this mechanism is fed straight back into undermining the competition or accessing new areas of business. The vendors on Amazon’s marketplace are just as dependent on the goodwill of the platform as media companies are on Google or Facebook. This goodwill can only be acquired by consistently providing access to all content and data, thus continuing to feed the monopoly and making it more efficient.

The enormous profitability of these infrastructure services allows the GAFA companies to invest in new fields of business on a very long-term basis. To do this, the monopolists are willing to accept high losses for many years in order to weaken the competition and build up market shares. Due to the enormous market capitalization of the GAFA companies, it is necessary for them to continue to occupy large and lucrative markets to keep the expansive system going and to increase their stock market price.

Consumers are the human shields protecting the monopolies

The favorite argument put forward by the GAFA companies to divert attention away from their position of power is that the products are free for the consumers and that they greatly improve the lives of all of us.

That is a sneaky argument that might seem plausible at first glance. However, it is a deliberate trick. The products sold via the platforms must finance the high profits of the GAFA companies — which means that the users are paying indirectly.

What is even worse: they are forced to hand over their personal data. The tech giants have no reservations whatsoever when it comes to analyzing their customers down to the smallest detail. They know that we can no longer live without their products, and that is why antitrust fines or occasional political objections are a small price for them to pay on the way to increasing their market dominance.

Our dependency on the GAFA companies’ infrastructure makes things extremely difficult for our government authorities because they want to help the citizens, not cause them problems.

A life without iPhones, Google Maps, WhatsApp, or Amazon is hard to imagine and not exactly something we are striving for. The bundling together of the different services such as the integration of maps into Google’s search engine, or the linkup between the app stores and the smartphone operating systems makes it even more difficult to break up the monopolies.

Not that GAFA doesn’t deserve our respect for having understood this connection years ago and for placing it at the heart of their strategy to defend what they do and exculpate them from any wrongdoing. None of us can imagine a world without their dominance anymore. And therein lies the problem, as well as the political and regulatory challenge.

The large tech corporations spend billions on image campaigns and employ an army of lobbyists in Berlin, Brussels and Washington, DC. There is hardly a single association, NGO, or start-up hub in the political sphere that they do not support in some way or other. Politicians and entrepreneurs who point out alternatives are – with only few exceptions – reeled in again by the lobbyists and opinion-makers, attacked in the media or have their businesses damaged.

The lack of regulation of the tech monopolies is the greatest danger to liberal democracies

There are two possible exit scenarios for the end of the tech monopolies. If we continue without strict regulation of GAFA, the polarization within society will grow. The economic opportunities of smaller businesses will shrink more and more because of the growing profits of the monopolies, and the GAFA companies will be able to take over whole new fields of business.

An ever-growing concentration of economic power will lead in the medium term to an erosion of the market economy. This will soon cause social unrest, distribution struggles, and an increasing destabilization of our liberal democracy, which will be unable to gain control of the economic inequality.

There have been clear signs of this development for many years, but our debate so far remains focused on the symptoms instead of asking about the causes. This is regrettable, because the facts are there for anyone to see. You only have to look at where record turnovers are being made in the midst of a great European recession, where profits are increasing permanently, and market shares are being gained.

And in my opinion, this dark scenario can only end in a state run by autocratic populists. We only have to look at protectionist China to see where this might lead. The GAFA companies have nothing to say there anymore, and the Chinese have constructed their own tech ecosystem. The Chinese population pays a very high price for this in the form of an illiberal dictatorship in which politicians decide who is allowed to have economic success.

The second, optimistic exit scenario is a return to European sovereignty and our social market economy. Ludwig Erhard, who as Minister of Economic Affairs led Germany’s remarkable post-war economic recovery (the Wirtschaftswunder, or ‘economic miracle’), and later became Chancellor, already postulated that a market economy can only work if it works for everyone. What Erhard was referring to here was protection against interference in the state, but also protection against monopolists and cartels.

Ludwig’s legacy is being kept alive today by the likes of EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who campaigns like almost no other politician in Europe for regulation of the GAFA companies. However, in contrast to the eagerness for reform in the early years of the Federal Republic, the EU is slower as well as unclear in its vision and in its willingness to shape the future. And that is precisely the weakness that the US corporations have been exploiting for many years.

Far-reaching regulation of the tech monopolies is urgently necessary and unavoidable

In my mind, there can be no doubt that splitting up the GAFA companies is unavoidable in the long term if we want the liberal democracies of the Western world to survive. This is not only in the hands of the EU, but is ultimately a decision of the US government. Which is why this topic must be given utmost priority in German and European foreign policy.

The US is rightly demanding that we take our security interests increasingly into our own hands. But the ability to act in a self-determined manner also requires a functioning market economy, which is why we must immediately prompt the US to modernize its antitrust legislation and, after sharp debate in the Senate, to also become active in the campaign to split up the GAFA companies.

In the meantime, Vestager and the EU recently embarked on the pragmatic path towards intelligent regulations by announcing the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The DMA defines what gatekeeper platforms are and submits them to much stricter competitive restraints. For example, giving their own products preferential treatment in the marketplaces, as currently practiced by Amazon and Google, is to be prohibited and carries a heavy fine.

In my eyes, this is still not enough to cope with the problem of GAFA market power. We must define, isolate, and regulate the critical infrastructure of the GAFA companies. This applies, in particular, to the evaluation of personal data, and to the allocation of their enormous profits. Whether Google’s search engine, Facebook’s WhatsApp, or the Amazon Cloud: data and profits from this critical infrastructure must not be used to expand into other markets.

Just as we would not allow an electricity generation company to make unlimited profits to enter into direct competition with Miele, Siemens, and Bosch, we must subject our digital infrastructure to the same regulatory checks and controls. The data and the algorithms of the monopolists must be available to all of us so that those participating in the market can engage in fair competition on the platforms to the benefit of the customers.

For a long time, I was skeptical about whether Europe can succeed in managing this enormous task. But, in the meantime, I see reason for optimism. When Facebook recently wanted to force WhatsApp users to share all their data so that their advertising could more easily reach users via Facebook and Instagram, the update resulted in a huge surge towards alternative messaging services like Signal and Telegram.

Both of these have been at the top of the app stores for weeks now and differ from WhatsApp in that they request much less data. A turning point has been heralded in, and people are ready for a future that is different from the one imagined by the GAFA companies. The political decision-makers in Brussels and Berlin should follow this lead. The social market economy is one of our greatest achievements and is the foundation of our democracy.

And we should fight for it, especially in the digital age, undaunted by the size and power of its opponents.

This article originally appeared in WELT.

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