Break Up The Internet Giants? Is Berners-Lee Right?

It has not been a great week to be a tech giant.

At Google staff walked out because of treatment of female workers, and at Apple shares slumped on the news that iPhone sales are not as positive as hoped. Facebook's founder is again being summoned to defend the social network to British MPs, and all companies grossing over GBP500m sales have been told they will be hit with a 2% tax in a year and a half.

Beyond that, there is also the growing threat to the social media networks, in particular that they will be held more accountable for the content that is published on them. Ofcom even told MPs this week that the social giants are expecting stronger regulation -- it is just up to politicians to draw up the necessary laws. 

And then we have Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor often associated with creating the World Wide Web, talking about the ultimate sanction. The internet giants are so massive that they may need to be broken up, he suggests.

The last straw, The Guardian reports, was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw personal information from 87m Facebook customers misused. It showed to Berners-Lee that not only are the internet giants too huge, they are not using their power wisely and responsibly.

There are two answers, he suggests. We either wait to see whether smaller companies come along and disrupt them -- or they should be broken up.

The Guardian article in which Berners-Lee make the point has done some number-crunching. The combined market capitalisations of Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple is around $3.7 trillion. Between them, they generate more revenue than Germany's annual GDP.

With that in mind, it's hard to imagine how the tech giants can be brought to heel. Facebook and Google, in particular, are old hands at buying new promising platforms, such as Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube, to name just three. If you are in their sphere and have a Google-beating idea, guess which will be the first company slamming down a huge pile of cash on the table?

Personally, I'm not a fan of breaking up companies. It just sounds like the state is taking too much power. And how do you break up a global company, anyway?

No, the way forward has to be an absolute clamp-down on accountancy practices that move far too much revenue to be taxed in regimes with lower tax rates. That has to be stamped out through international agreement or a shift entirely to a sales tax, similar to the Digital Services Tax announced by Philip Hammond on Monday.

Secondly, the tech giants have to be made responsible for the content on their services -- and given deadlines by which to remove fake news and harmful content.

Progress is being made here, but more needs to be done if the tech giants are actually going to be compelled to clean up their services like any other publisher.

If the job is too big, then maybe that will be what cuts the platforms back down to size.

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