16 June 2013

Are Google and Facebook Natural Monopolies?

Since the furore over some of the biggest companies in the world not paying their taxes I can't be the only person who has made the logical move as an 'ethical capitalist' and looked to take my custom to a competitor. In the case of Starbucks this is relatively easy, and in fact the local coffee shops in our high streets offer more variety and interest, as well as contributing local taxes to pay for the infrastructure we all use. No wonder, then, that even the Daily Mail is celebrating Starbucks' loss of market share to its rival Costa.

Amazon is another matter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, in some respects they are the worst sinner, their lorries pounding our roads that they do their best to avoid paying for. My own solution was ABE books, which was later bought by Amazon, reducing competition in the market for second-hand books. Housmans is still a viable alternative, although given its much smaller scale it cannot bully publishers to sell it books at low prices, and so you will pay for your ethical decision to switch.

But what about Google? If you have one global information system, it follows that there will be one indexing system to help people find their way around it. The programmers who invented the indexing system, the Google algorithm, should be rewarded with gratitude and, if they choose, a hefty fee. But this should be a one-off payment; it should not be used to extract value from those who need to seek information for the rest of time. The Internet is a largely unregulated environment, but even economic theory suggest that, if it is the natural monopoly that a single world-wide information system implies, it should be socially or publicly owned, and controlled by all for social benefit.

I have long been avoiding Facebook for a whole number of reasons which I tend to express with the explanation that I am not prepared to become Mark Zuckerberg's slave. Here is another example of something that it only makes sense to have one of. If everybody in the world wants to search everybody else in the world they do not want to have to look through ten social media networks to find them. Hence the same anti-monopoly arguments apply and by the same relentless logic, Facebook too should be democratised.

Wikipedia is, of course, the honourable exception here, a global encyclopaedia that is created by knowledge gift and whose value is open to all. Can we think of a way of shifting Google and Facebook in the direction of a wiki economic approach? And where are the politicians with the courage to make that happen?

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