TechTok

Technology now a national strategic issue

There is no better template for the state of the world than the technology industry. In the highly globalized world of the mid 2000’s, Google had one third of the internet search market in China, while today it has close to zero. The internet is becoming multipolar – the US has internet giants that have become stock market monsters, Europe has few tech giants of its own but is leading the regulatory charge on technology, whilst China has on one hand ring fenced its internet space, whilst at the same time generating the world’s leading thriving e-commerce sector and driving tech into social policy.

Technology is interesting in many other respects, but the one I find thrilling is the way it now crosses into every domain – politics, economics, markets and society. It arguably is more pervasive than the new technologies of prior periods of globalization – such as the steam engine and railways (though the technology sector will never match the 60% share of the market capitalization of the US market that railways enjoyed in 1900).

It is not surprising then that there is a broad feeling that tech is too big for its boots. Economically, e-commerce firms like Amazon are big enough to have pricing, scale and distributional advantages that suppress smaller players (and that large ones like Walmart do not seem able to match) and the same may be true of Apple’s Appstore supermarket. Google and Facebook have become advertising behemoths and politically indispensable. Financially, these firms now account for nearly a quarter of the market capitalization of the US market (Apple added USD 170 bn in market capitalization on Friday alone), and as such have become a huge ‘swing’ factor for pension funds, the ETF (exchange traded fund) industry and day traders.

The technology industry, in the USA, India and China, has become the locus of wealth inequality – creating vast fortunes for tech owners. Moreover, tech giants vastly distort both entrepreneurship and innovation. During the testimony of the CEO’s of the large US tech firms to Congress it was revealed that Facebook had adopted a strategy of stifling competitive threats by buying them. The same might be true of other tech behemoths.

If so, the danger here is to stunt the growth of new tech eco systems, to distort innovation in that new companies are built for ‘takeover’ rather than to solve new industry problems, and to hoard the fruits of innovation within a few corporations.

The ‘what to do about tech’ should be clear to anti-trust lawyers and economists concerned with monopoly power. To this end, breaking up the large technology companies in the same fashion as the dismantling of Standard Oil in 1911 or even the Glass-Steagall act of 1933 is an option. Another approach would be to embargo tech giants buying smaller companies so as to give new tech ecosystems a chance to thrive (note how the US failed to develop a 5G ecosystem).

A more likely option is to leave the tech monoliths in place but tax them (and possibly their owners) and harvest the fruits of their superstructures. Ideally this revenue would be funneled to education, digital literacy and cybersecurity. Even the EU sees this opportunity, and plans to fund part of its recent Recovery and Resilience plan with a digital tax – though implementing this will be difficult.

What to do about tech is less clear if you are a politician – technology has replaced television and radio as the way of reaching hearts and minds, the tech community is a source of donations, and in a multipolar world it is a strategic, security related asset. In that context one option is to deepen the ties between the state and the technology complex, as China is doing.

If anything, the signs are that the US will follow the Chinese model, notably so with suggestions that Microsoft might buy TikTok, the increasing use of camera and home security system (from Amazon) data and the growing ties between the likes of Microsoft and the government in cybersecurity.   

If the relationship between American tech monopolies and the state is to become even more symbiotic, it will still have rules. One for example is that in areas where the state has a monopoly, tech will not be allowed to encroach. The best illustration here is the role of the dollar and the failure of Facebook’s Libra payment system to take off.  Another consideration is what vision the large technology companies have for the US – many of them may well prefer a more data intensive world, where technology is even more deeply embedded in governance…which again takes the US towards China’s model.

Where will this leave Europe? By default of not having managed to create its own tech giants (and I am skeptical that it will be able to do so soon) the EU can focus on raising the standards on data protection, digital identity and payment systems. It needs to also make real progress on capital markets union and on incentivizing tech entrepreneurs at a pan EU level so that companies like Stripe can thrive in Europe. If it doesn’t it may become a tech colony, and a paradise for non-tech industries, from tourism to wine to good food!.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike