You may have heard of GAFA – a quick way of referring to the big four tech companies (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon); but if you add Netflix to the line-up, then you have the FAANGs: a suitably scary acronym for the companies that are disrupting – and, some would say, sucking the life out of – capitalism.
Last week I wrote about the fury provoked by Amazon’s search for a second HQ – and the special favours and subsidies offered by cities and states vying to play host. It was, said the critics, a grotesque example of corporate welfare.
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Of course, Amazon is not the only tech giant to come under political pressure – whether at home or abroad.
But what does it all amount to? Will we see concerns about the power and practices of the FAANGs turn into something like the antitrust reforms of the early 20th century?
In a convincingly pessimistic article for Vanity Fair, William D Cohan doesn’t think so:
“On Wall Street, however, bankers are betting that Americans don’t really care about reining in Silicon Valley—and that Congress, for the most part, doesn’t really care, either.”
Well, the bankers of Wall Street should know all about the failure of government to properly regulate an out-of-control industry. They certainly recognise a weakness of political will when they see it.
Cohan mentions a conversation he had with a Wall Street executive whose job was to ascertain the likelihood of meaningful regulation for the tech sector:
“His point was that there still is no natural, large constituency for regulating any of the major tech companies that dominate portions of the U.S. economy. What legislators and aides were conveying, this person told me, was that they believed the outrage was limited… the congressional staffers told my source, ‘We’re not getting calls on this. Nobody’s marching on Washington because they’re upset about Facebook. When we go home to our districts, nobody’s showing up in our town halls and complaining about Instagram or complaining about Amazon.’”
So, the reason why the politicians aren’t really bothered is because we’re not. But why don’t we care?
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Cohan points out that tech companies are hard to regulate because many of the services they provide are free to the public. How does one assess the harm done by a monopoly when, for most people, there is literally no price to pay?
This also explains the lack of public anger. Unlike, say, a utility company, there is no bill waiting on the doormat at the end of each quarter, no final demand for payment, no risk of disconnection. And even with the tech products one does have to pay for, there are usually cheaper options to switch to – options which include going more or less tech free. To a considerable extent these are services that we want rather than need to consume.
Of course, in a broader sense, there is a price to be paid for the growing dominance of the tech companies: the loss of shops in the High Street; the decline of print media; the control and exploitation of personal data; the disruption caused by platform capitalism on independent businesses in a variety of sectors from taxis to tourism; the impact of the distraction economy on economic productivity; the effect of social media on mental health; one could go on.
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However, these are second and third order effects – things that the public may lament, but which they don’t link directly to the services that FAANGs provide to them. Or, when we do make the link, we have to admit that we’re actively complicit – regretting the demise of the local bookshop while ordering books from you-know-who.
It’s hard to get angry at businesses whose power is based on our all-too-eager cooperation.
But this is precisely why politicians need to take the lead. The whole point of representative democracy is to mobilise the diffuse, and therefore individually powerless, interests of the public, against the concentrated and highly-motivated interests of powerful corporations. We need saving from their – and our – our worst instincts.
‘Vulture capitalism’ is a play on the words ‘venture capital’. It refers to practices like the purchase and asset-stripping of an ailing company. Nasty stuff, but a bigger threat is ‘vampire capitalism’ – which is also extractive, but much more attractive. After all, the most dangerous kind of predator is not one that overpowers its prey, but charms it.
The FAANGs are not wholly villainous. Much of what they do is impressive and occasionally life-enhancing. Nevertheless, we need politicians to keep them in check. This might not be the time for sharpened stakes, but a bit of garlic wouldn’t go amiss.