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At the turn of the 20th century, the United States’ economy was dominated by an oligarchy of industrialists. More than 100 years after their zenith, their names still resonate: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor, Vanderbilt and Morgan among them. These men, known as the “robber barons”, amassed wealth and power by monopolising industries. Together they presided over the gilded age of American expansion.

The era was also notoriously corrupt. The barons stopped at nothing as they built their empires. They acquired or crushed competitors, bought politicians and judges, fought unions and exploited workers. Their behaviour created a chasm of inequality across the nation. It took a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, to bring them to heel.

America has come full circle since then. Again we have a clique of oligarchs at the apex of the economy. Five tech giants — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google) and Facebook — are the most valuable companies in the country. When COVID-19 first emerged in the US in late January 2020, they were worth a combined market capitalisation of US$5.4 trillion (A$7.2 trillion). That was their all-time peak. Since then this sum has exploded a further 60% to US$8.6 trillion. They have had a good pandemic.

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For context, the following firms have a collective value of US$1.6 trillion: VISA (US$520 billion); Exxon Mobil (US$273 billion); Coca-Cola (US$235b); Nike (US$211 billion); McDonald’s (US$174 billion); Boeing (US$147 billion); General Motors (US$87 billion). These are not minnows. They are market-leading global businesses, dominant in their categories. Of the big five, only Facebook is worth less than the entire bunch.

At the heart of the tech giants’ success has been an unfettered reign of growth without constraint — the new Wild West. They bought or destroyed rivals, “disrupted” industries, pursued aggressive legal and tax strategies, donated to politicians and then lobbied for their votes, neutered internal and external dissent, and of course opposed unions. As Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame put it, they moved fast and broke things.

In their wake they left a host of harms. By claiming people were happy to trade privacy for convenience, they have built a digital panopticon. Always watching, tracking our every move — even when not using their services.

But this is a straw man. We were never offered an alternative. They saw their opportunity and they took it. We have become their products.

Their tax games have leached revenue from governments around the world. The amounts are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Apple, the world’s richest company, funnelled its non-US sales through an office in low-tax Ireland, before upping stakes to no-tax Jersey in the English Channel after a stoush with the European Commission. All perfectly legal, as Apple CEO Tim Cook parrots regularly.

Google and Facebook hoover up more than half of US internet advertising spending; everyone else fights over the scraps. Amazon, in addition to reinventing retail, dominates the cloud services infrastructure that is the backbone of the web. Microsoft, Google and Apple control the operating systems, browsers and software that drive our daily devices. Facebook manipulates our media ecosystem, shaping our very thoughts and enabling a cascade of lies, misinformation and propaganda.

Yet even as we know all this, we can’t escape their clutches. They have become as essential to our lives as oil, railroads, and steel were when the original tycoons ruled.

Help is at hand. The European Commission has been battling the tech titans for several years, playing Whac-A-Mole while trying to rein them in. Now three key initiatives in Washington look set to add teeth to the fight.

First, the Biden administration secured agreement at the recent G7 summit to impose a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15%. This accord aims to prevent profit-shifting as countries compete to lure multinationals in a race to the bottom. It will limit the jurisdiction-shopping that has become a hallmark of global trade, particularly for companies that deal in intangible goods and services. With G7 backing, we can expect the G20 and OECD to follow suit, which should bolt the door on this lurk.

Second, the administration has appointed Lina Khan to chair the Federal Trade Commission. The commission is charged with enforcing antitrust law and protecting consumers. At 32, Khan is the youngest chair in the agency’s history. A Yale law graduate, she created a splash in 2017 with a seminal article in the Yale Law Journal titled “Amazon’s antitrust paradox“. She has also taken aim previously at Google’s market power, prompting pushback from the giant. Khan is expected to use her authority to tackle the big five head on.

Third, in a rare display of genuine bipartisanship, Congress is debating a package of antitrust legislation to curtail the tech giants’ might. Six bills would limit acquisitions, strengthen oversight and enforcement, and block unfair trade practices, among other steps.

Democrats are motivated by consumer interests. Republicans believe the tech firms are biased against them. Regardless of reasoning, it appears that Washington has finally caught up with the digital age.

Together these measures should achieve what Roosevelt did in his time. By levelling the playing field, he opened the door to competition and innovation, allowing better quality, lower prices and more choice for customers. We should all want that.

The big five won’t fade away any time soon. They will deploy every weapon at their disposal to fight back against any regulation. That’s what whales do. But change is coming to Silicon Valley. And it’s about time.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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