On 6 October, less than four weeks before the US election, the House of Representatives’ antitrust subcommittee presented a striking prediction of what might happen if the data economy is allowed to run its course.
The committee concluded the four companies it had investigated – Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook – had “captured control over key channels of distribution and have come to function as gatekeepers. Just a decade into the future, 30 per cent of the world’s gross economic output may lie with these firms.”
The publication of the report delighted those who have long been calling for a reckoning for Google and its fellow tech giants. Barry Lynn, who has, as director of the Open Markets Institute, been pushing for reform of the tech sector for more than a decade, told me he sees it as “the single most important congressional investigation into private power since the Pujo Committee”, which was convened 108 years ago and is credited, among other things, with the creation of US antitrust law and the Federal Reserve, the adoption of federal income tax, and the death of JP Morgan.
Three weeks after the committee’s report, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) filed narrow but carefully considered charges against Google, which it claims illegally compels smartphone manufacturers that use its Android software (as three quarters of the world’s smartphones do) to make its search engine the default option on their devices. Google also pays Apple billions of dollars a year to do the same thing with iPhones.
Rumours swirled that other tech firms would soon find themselves within the US government’s sights. But few anticipated just how radical the forthcoming legal action would be.