The internet is not an act of God or an untameable force against which humanity has no control or defences. The individuals who run the world’s biggest tech companies are not more praiseworthy, capable or enlightened than the leaders of traditional businesses. They certainly don’t deserve the right or power to destroy the basic tenets of civilised society simply because there are profits to be made.
Yet we act as though this is the case. It is time for us to stop sleep-walking into a future created by a handful of monopolists and loophole-scroungers.
Earlier this year I wrote about the threat that Amazon’s near monopoly and monopsony of the book trade poses to the marketplace of ideas and, indeed, the bedrock of democracy.
Monopolistic power is a major aspect of the social battles raging between society and the tech giants, but it is not only the one. Parasitism — digital businesses that have found legal ways to bleed established sectors (news, music, film and retail) dry — is another. The two often go hand in hand as evinced by such companies as Google, Facebook and Spotify.
Their destructive force is subtle. Last week the century-old The New Republic (TNR), one of the most venerable opinion journals in America, collapsed under the resignation of about 50 of its staff and contributing editors. The walkout was so sudden that the December issue had to be cancelled. Whether there will still be a TNR worth saving in January is anybody’s guess.