A political writer has claimed that Google, Amazon and Facebook should be nationalised after becoming too powerful and collecting too much personal data from their users.
Writing in an opinion piece in the Guardian, King's College university lecturer Nick Srnicek claimed that these companies have grown too powerful after gathering data from their customers at an unprecedented rate.
He claims that these tech companies are now branching out of their traditional spaces and moving into non-tech environments to increase their dominance, highlighting Google's work with driverless vehicles and Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods as examples.
"The picture that emerges is of increasingly sprawling empires designed to vacuum up as much data as possible," he said.
The reach of these tech firms, he claimed, has led to a downturn of fortunes for companies in other markets. Retailers, for example, cannot cope with Amazon's scale, while journalism is suffering as advertisers buy space on Facebook rather than in newspapers.
Srnicek claims the solution to this problem is to nationalise the platform tech companies and digital infrastructure, comparing them to other industries that have gone the same way in the past.
"We've only begun to grasp the problem, but in the past, natural monopolies such as utilities and railways that enjoy huge economies of scale and serve the common good have been prime candidates for public ownership," he said.
"The solution to our newfangled monopoly problem lies in this sort of age-old fix, updated for our digital age.
"It would mean taking back control over the internet and our digital infrastructure, instead of allowing them to be run in the pursuit of profit and power. Tinkering with minor regulations while AI firms amass power won't do."
Srnicek's column comes amid a stand-off between governments and the technology industry.
Prime minister Theresa May has clashed with Microsoft and Google in recent months, accusing them of creating "safe spaces" for terrorists to operate online and criticising them for the level of encryption used on their communication services.
Chris Bunch, head of Europe at cloud service provider Cloudreach, told CRN that nationalising the digital infrastructure would provide no benefit to consumers, adding that this degree of state control would merely stifle innovation.
"Is there value in the data platform being owned and operated by the government? I don't think there is," he said. "This is bleeding-edge technology and it's innovative capitalism that is required to keep it developing."
Bunch said consumers should already be aware that Google and Facebook provide their services for free in exchange for generating revenue through the use of personal data.
With this in mind, consumers can choose whether to use the services or not - meaning that a move as drastic as nationalisation is not necessary.
"They offer a great service and it's free," he said. "As with anything in life, consumers are wising up to the fact that if something is free the way the product is getting money is from your data, and you have to accept that as a trade-off for the use of the service."
In terms of the state stepping in to regulate the power of these tech firms, Bunch pointed out examples of regulatory bodies taking action when a company has created a genuine monopoly.
He highlighted Ofcom's ruling that BT must split Openreach from its main business as an example - proving that regulatory bodies are willing to take action when things go too far.
The government, he claimed, should be doing more to push tech firms to make their terms and conditions understandable so that users know what their personal data is being used for and can choose to not use the service.
"The government could step in and protect users so that if you want to use one of the applications and you read the user licensing agreement you can actually understand it," he said.
"People might be acting in line with the agreements, but that doesn't mean that they understand them. It can be done in the same way that food packaging has been simplified so that people can actually understand what is in the food."
Who is in control?
Carl Gottlieb, director at security consultancy Cognition, said it is debatable whether the likes of Amazon and Facebook actually have genuine monopolies, because consumers do not have to shop on Amazon and they do not have to use social media.
Expanding on this, he said that although tech firms have access to user data once the user agrees to give it to them, it is still the user who retains control.
He also pointed out that the recent $2.4bn fine handed out by the EU to Google for abusing its market position proves that the EU has "shown its teeth" when it comes to data breaches.
"Facebook gives you the ability to delete your account and export all the data, so we already have rights," he said.
"We have control and more importantly we have choice. Do you have a choice of who you search with? Of course, there are some really good other search engines [other than Google]. You don't have to use Facebook if you don't want to, there are plenty of different messaging apps.
"[Srnicek] calls it a monopoly, but I'd argue there is no control. Amazon is a great place to shop, but you don't have to shop there.
"Ultimately it is our data and we have control of it. It's not like they take it from us."
Rick Van De Merwe of Microsoft Azure partner RedPixie compared the situation with the rise of Bitcoin, which he explained came as a result of consumers losing faith in the banking sector following the financial crisis.
He said that the market itself will adapt if and when it decides that tech companies hold too much power.
"At the end of the day if the industry and companies like RedPixie, Microsoft and Google don't solve these problems then the free market will solve it for them," he said.
"In essence what [Srnicek is] saying here is ‘we have a problem with centralisation - they're too big, too powerful and they hold too much information and we're worried', but the market does solve these problems itself.
"That's what's happening with Blockchain and Bitcoin; they're following a de-centralised model.
"Bitcoin developed out of a real need following the financial crisis where people no longer trusted the organisations that guard our finances."
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