A few large players dominate much of the online world, but the internet is healthier when it is controlled by many.
Many of the challenges facing the health of the internet today can be traced back to the fact that the most ubiquitous digital products and services are controlled by a handful of players.
In the last year, the debate about this consolidation of power has continued, sharpened and, in some cases, started to grow teeth.
The digital world is dominated by eight American and Chinese companies: Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, Baidu, Facebook, Microsoft and Tencent.
These companies and their subsidiaries have outsized control over the internet. They dominate all layers of the digital world, from the search engines, browsers and social media services many of us use daily, to core infrastructure like undersea cables and cloud computing that few of us see. They built their empires by selling our attention to advertisers, disrupting business models and creating new online marketplaces, and designing hardware and software that is now deeply integrated into many of our lives. Their influence is ever-increasing in our private lives and public spaces. Where they misstep, we can experience real harm.
A healthy balance of power in our global internet ecosystem depends on a delicate interplay between governments, companies and civil society. We need effective competition standards and technical interoperability ––between the products of different companies–– to ensure that the internet grows and evolves in ways that accommodate the diverse needs of people around the world.
Fines for breaking antitrust laws like the $5 billion fine that European Union regulators hit Google with in 2018 have not had the effect needed to ensure a balanced and open future.
Many are exploring alternatives to an internet driven by the interests of corporate goliaths on their own. New business models are emerging that seek to distribute control among users, including platform cooperativism and collaborative ownership.
Vibrant communities of innovators are working to create alternatives to centralized systems by upscaling local connectivity, spinning up decentralized projects, protocols and products and even creating independent alternatives to publishing on the big tech platforms.
From the start, the internet has enabled people to challenge authority, upend traditional business models and create greater transparency, openness and accountability. But the disruptive-for-good vision of the internet isn’t something we can take for granted.
For an internet where there is true choice, we need to support products that diversify the market, and laws and policies that protect users and foster healthy competition. We need to join forces and drive citizen action, research and innovation to build a healthier internet.