Debate over regulating sector grows as US tech giants expand

WASHINGTON • With a handful of US technology giants growing more powerful and dominant, the debate is intensifying on whether big tech's growth is healthy or not.

Over the past few years, Apple, Google's parent Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon have become among the world's most valuable companies. Along with stalwarts like Microsoft and rising stars like Netflix, the tech firms exercise enormous control over what people see and how they live.

Increasingly, policymakers and others have begun to consider breaking up or regulating the biggest tech firms, although imminent action appears unlikely. While many consumers welcome innovation from the tech sector, critics have complained about the power of "gatekeepers" of information and other content.

Google holds around 90 per cent of the Internet search market in the United States and Europe. Facebook and Google scoop up some 60 per cent of digital ad revenues and are eating up 90 per cent of new ad growth in the US. Google's Android and Apple's iOS power the overwhelming majority of mobile devices. Amazon accounts for nearly half of US online sales and is expanding into new sectors.

Mr Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, said three firms - Google, Facebook and Amazon - "have their hands on the flow of news (and) the flow of books and they are manipulating that flow in a conscious way to promote their interests".

Mr Bill Galston, who was a White House adviser under former US president Bill Clinton, argued that tech monopolies could be distorting the political landscape.

"The big tech firms have almost unlimited funds they can throw into lobbying, and they have been ramping this up steeply," Mr Galston said. "Is that a good thing for democracy?"

DISTORTING POLITICS

The big tech firms have almost unlimited funds they can throw into lobbying, and they have been ramping this up steeply. Is that a good thing for democracy?

MR BILL GALSTON, a White House adviser under former president Bill Clinton, on tech monopolies distorting politics.

Mr Lou Kerner, a partner at the investment firm Flight Ventures, said this monopoly power is more concentrated than any in recent history, and expressed concern that it will "strangle innovation" and increase income inequality, although he opposes heavy-handed regulation or break-up of the tech giants.

Meanwhile, Mr Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represents firms including Google, Facebook and Microsoft, said breaking up the tech giants could have a "chilling effect on innovation".

European regulators have taken a more aggressive approach, imposing a hefty fine on Google after concluding the search giant illegally favoured its own shopping services.

But Federal Trade Commission chief Maureen Ohlhausen, who would lead any US anti-trust action, has signalled that any effort to break up tech firms is remote.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Debate over regulating sector grows as US tech giants expand'. Print Edition | Subscribe