Trump, tax avoidance, the addictive nature of social media… the arguments put by the two speakers in favour of ‘Breaking up the Tech Giants’ were wearily predictable.
But they were clearly not sufficient to sway the audience. Before the debate a majority had claimed to back the motion. But, by the end of the evening, it lay defeated, 53% to 47%.
So what swung it for the Tech Giants supporters?
It was hard to tell precisely, but – failing a conspiracy theory in which Google had packed the auditorium with staffers – the audience seemed persuaded that the consumer benefits of Google, Facebook and Amazon were simply too valuable to disrupt.
You could see this when one of those who opposed the Tech Giants admitted that he sold his own book on Amazon. He was roundly jeered for his hypocrisy.
From my perspective – as seemingly the only representative of the advertising industry in the building – no speaker in favour of the motion understood enough about business models to make their case convincingly.
It was the ‘Giant’ aspect that most concerned them – big, evil, American – rather than the Tech, or any particular monopolistic practices that needed to be addressed.
This allowed the other side to point out all the consumer benefits that these companies provide.
“They’re big because they’re good” said the Professor of Law and former consultant to Google Pinar Akman, “not the other way round”. “But they need to be big to work”, added former Facebook EMEA head of politics, Elizabeth Linder, which I thought was rather having it both ways.
Speaking personally, it’s not Google’s search efficacy that troubles me, nor Facebook’s 1 billion users.
Rather, it’s the fact that the consumers of those services are now the ‘product’ that Google and Facebook offer us for sale. And by ‘us’, I mean companies and commercial enterprises, large and small, who need somehow to connect with new customers online.
Personally I think Facebook is doomed – it’s a rubbish medium for advertising and usage is already beginning to slip – but as businesses, none of us can avoid some interaction with Google’s search engine, which resembles nothing so much as a modern-day Yellow Pages.
Our customers now define each market by the search results they see on Google.
And the only sure way to beat Google’s opaque ‘organic’ algorithms is to pay Google money, in a bidding war against our competitors for the highest position in the listings.
It’s a bidding war that only Google wins.
So, AdWords. There’s a first monopoly to crack.
NB: It was interesting that Amazon was barely mentioned in the debate. Again, as consumers, don’t we just love shopping at Amazon?
But Amazon is, actually, the Tech Giant that scares me most.
Ad blockers could defeat Google in an evening. Boredom with politics and kittens could one day see off social media.
But Amazon’s business model is terrifying: to sell to an ever growing numbers of markets, at rock bottom prices; to invest all their profits to hone their systems to perfection (thus paying very little in tax); and to use their ever-growing power to bully or subsume their suppliers.
I wouldn’t want to be a retailer up against Amazon right now – particularly if I had a bricks and mortar outlet to support.
And I wonder what will happen to those rock bottom prices when there are no other retailers left to compete?
Actually – maybe Amazon is the developing monopoly that should concern us most?