One of the paradoxical things about digital technology is that while in theory it fosters competition, in practice it leads to winner-takes-all outcomes. The reasons for this are complex – they include zero marginal costs, powerful network effects, power-law distributions and technological lock-in – and need not detain us here. But we are all too familiar with the winners: Google in search; Apple’s IoS and Google’s Android in mobile operating systems; Facebook in social networking; YouTube in video; Microsoft in office software; Amazon in online retailing.
The five biggest companies in the world are now all digital giants, each wielding monopolistic power in their markets. We are increasingly aware that some of their activities are socially damaging: they are deepening inequality, avoiding taxation, undermining democratic processes, creating addictive products, eroding privacy and so on. And yet, with the odd exception (mostly represented by the European commission), our societies seem transfixed by them, like rabbits paralysed in the tractor’s headlights. Politicians bleat about the need to do something about the digital giants, but so far it’s been all talk and no action.