Today
Thu 28 October 2021

Matthew Gwyther reports on the continued march of the unaccountable digital monopolies and their ambition to reengineer everything – including us

2020 was a great year for the American Big Tech Empire. COVID-19 meant it consolidated its position across its dominions worldwide: digital thrives when we are unable to leave our homes and have to socially distance when we do. It takes over from the face-to-face. 

Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook had an extraordinary third quarter, with $38 billion in profits on nearly $240 billion in revenue. Amazon’s profits are up 200% on the previous year. Google’s grew by 60% and Facebook’s by 30%. Even Microsoft/Alphabet made $14 billion in profit during the same period as its cloud computing business has boomed.

So what’s been bad for restaurants, theatres, cinemas, airlines, higher education and countless other industries has been good for the world’s biggest tech companies. Big Tech is in its imperial pomp. And it’s not yet crying salt tears. There is plenty left to conquer and power to consolidate. 

But where are the European tech giants? Nowhere. We are subjects of the American empire. The US itself is home to 14 of the world’s 20 most valuable tech firms by market capitalisation. In Europe we have one – the dull but worthy SAP – and the others are, predictably, Chinese who have imperial ambitions of their own.

The US tech sector, incidentally, is today worth more than all of the stock markets of the 27 EU member countries combined.


The Digital Imperium

Technology is not a sector any more. It has gone way beyond the traditional distinctions of software and hardware and become an omnipresent layer; a foundation that impacts on all other sectors – ranging from media to agriculture and food, transport to financial services.

As hydrocarbons fall badly from favour, data is the new oil and powerful, data-driven Big Tech companies increasingly challenge the positions of governments, exercising undemocratic power. And it takes all the booty back to Rome, remaining reluctant to cough up anything much in the way of tax to the subject countries’ exchequers –Facebook reluctantly parted with £28 million in 2019 on £1.6 billion of revenue. 

The author Franklin Foer has argued that tech is different from the sort of imperial monopolies run by robber baron oil tycoons and bankers in the previous two centuries. “More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mould humanity into their desired image of it,” he observes. “They believe that they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine – to redirect the trajectory of human evolution.”

This is a task of imperial hubris and has a lot in common with the vision of the Romans. The Romans were convinced of their intellectual, technological, military, cultural and societal superiority. They looked at weedy, wode-smeared ancient Brits and believed they were doing them a favour by taking over. (They drew the line at the Scots, of course, a savage race they couldn’t be bothered with and erected Hadrian’s Wall.) 

The Aeneid spells out this arrogance: “You, O Roman, govern the nations with your power – remember this! / These will be your arts – to impose the way of peace, to show mercy to the conquered and to subdue the proud.”

Make no mistake Big Tech thinks it has the answer to everything. The woes of modern cities? Google will build a new city from the ground up, as it wanted to in Toronto. The vision was to have a city bristling with technology, from autonomous cars to innovative ways of collecting rubbish, and hundreds of sensors collecting data on air quality and the movements of people. Buildings would be sustainable and built in radical new ways, and cycle lanes would be heated. Citizens would all be living in Google’s Truman Show

It is SPQR (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus) all over again as SPQFacebook.

Facebook has become a centre point of civil society, a company with 2.7 billion users that operates in almost every country in the world. It has developed into more than just a place to share photos and plan family events: it is where people read news, arrange protests, engage in debate, play games and listen to music. It is a Forum, Coliseum and Temple of Apollo. We live in its world, according to its algorithm.


Online and Offline Harms

Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and director of the Digital Ethics Lab at Oxford University, was born in Rome and knows the imperial playbook. He is one of the leading European thinkers weighing up the effects of tech in our lives.

He told me he agreed that tech is sui generis when it comes to regulation and believes that Big Tech is taking over 20th Century sovereign power, but without any true accountability. The counterpart of political accountability – voting in a democracy – is competition in business and that is lacking.

“It’s a habitat, an ecosystem, a landscape,” he said. “You don’t lean on tech and the internet the way you do on radio, TV or a newspaper. Mark Zuckerberg wants us to think of him as half newspaper, half telco. No. That’s just too convenient. What he provides is a public square and that’s a different story. You cannot shout whatever you want in public space.

“We cannot accept that it’s a matter of ‘online versus offline’ harms. That is so 1990s. It’s not bullying in the school classroom as opposed to bullying on Facebook. There is no longer any divide.”

He even provided an equation to illustrate this: “Online + Offline = Onlife.” 

This is very much the old Roman imperial way from 2,000 years ago. Veni, vidi, vici. And when start-ups try to resist by doing something different, Big Tech neutralises any potential threat by buying them out. Since 2005, Alphabet, Apple, Amazon and Facebook have acquired 385 other US companies, according to PitchBook. Alphabet alone has acquired 185.


The Resistance

The Coronavirus pandemic has consolidated the power of the largest tech firms and left them even more influential and controlling than before and this advance is finally causing some degree of unease.

This Autumn, the US House Judiciary Committee’s report into anti-trust was published. It concluded: “To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog start-ups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons.”

With Joe Biden due to be sworn-in as President in January, action on this front in 2021 looks increasingly likely. 

Resistance is growing, even in the Romans’ modern backyard. Italy’s data protection regulator has launched a formal case against TikTok, alleging that the Chinese-owned video-sharing app violates privacy, especially of children.

The ancient equivalent of data hoarding was the Census – on which the Romans were especially keen as they liked to know precisely what was going on among their subjects. It helped them to keep tabs on miscreants. It is topical for this time of the year as we are reminded in the Bible’s Book of Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.


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