Beyond Taming the Tech Giants

Wendy Liu:

My contribution to this panel will be less about the details [of how to tame the tech giants] and more about the bigger picture of what’s wrong with the way things are. I don’t know a lot about trade policy or international regulation. Instead, I’d like to take a step back to analyse the [broader] problems with the increasingly dystopian world we live in today. And in this analysis, I see the problems with the tech giants as requiring larger structural transformations [than merely “taming” the tech giants]. Transformations that require changing the way this discussion is framed altogether.

There’s a tendency, in the discourse around technology regulation, to implicitly accept the terms that these corporations set. We buy into the narrative that they want us to believe1: that these corporations are the only possible stewards of innovation, and so deserve to profit handsomely as a result. This creates a situation where even if we try to rein in their worst excesses, rarely do we doubt their right to exist in the first place.

And I think this constrains our imagination. It limits possible solutions to things like codes of ethics2, more taxation, more consumer rights. But rarely do these solutions go beyond cosmetic tweaks. The underlying causes of the problem – their accumulated power and their role in propping up an increasingly lopsided economy – remain untouched.3

So what’s actually happening, behind the scenes? These companies have made use of technological advances – often funded ultimately by the state4 – and capitalised on them, quite literally. Through a combination of early mover advantage, network effects, and zero marginal costs of production, they’ve established themselves as middlemen to the digital realm. They dictate our terms of access in a way that has proven extremely lucrative, accumulating not just wealth but also power. Over users, over competitors, over whole industries. And they’re pouring their massive resources into developing technology not according to social need, but according to what they think will eventually make them money.