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Saturday 6 April 2019

Monopolies. Should we be worried?

By James Harding

On 19 March 2019 Tortoise held a ThinkIn at Advertising Week in London with our partner, Kelkoo. Here’s the readout of what we discussed: should we be worried about modern monopolies?

Actively. The impact of the tech giants is everywhere – from problems with mental health, screen addiction and narcissism to squeezing market competition and consumer choice to denting trust in public safety, capitalism and democratic politics. Everyone is worried; the question is how much – and what to do about it.

It’s appealing to think that this is a problem made by business and one that business, harnessing consumer demand, can solve. No doubt the big disruptors are themselves ripe for disruption. For consumers, there are already better offers out there on price and privacy.

But some of the issues are going to have to be fixed by government. There’s the issue of tax. There are questions of regulation. There’s plenty to worry about when politicians get involved. They don’t really have the people who understand the dynamic world they’re responsible for governing. Their record of intervention is littered with unintended consequences (viz Google vs Bing) and patchy execution (GDPR). And their philosophy of regulation is retrospective, not future facing and fit for technological innovation. Most problematic, these are national powers trying to wrangle global forces.

Perhaps what should worry us most is that we think about regulating technology in mechanistic ways when the real debate should be about humans and machines. So far, when politicians and regulators have reached for systems to regulate, the machines and the monopolies have fared better than the people.

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