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How to cut big tech down to size

Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are too big. But should these brilliant behemoths really be broken up? Or is there a smarter way to tame them?

On each day of 2018 Apple sold almost 600,000 iPhones, Amazon made more than $500m in sales, some 1.47bn people logged onto Facebook, while there were 3.5bn searches on Google. The oldest of these companies, Apple, was founded in 1976, and just a decade ago all four were seen as scrappy—if fast-growing—outsiders. Today, even after Apple’s recent market travils, they are four of the biggest companies on the planet.

Any set of companies growing so big this rapidly would be cause for concern. But in the case of the technology giants, “concern” doesn’t quite cut it. Facebook is the biggest platform on the planet, and has been implicated in efforts from Russia and others to poison the online information ecosystem. Retailers and suppliers alike fear Amazon’s market power, while Google’s dominance of search feels all but unassailable—and Apple has shown its ability to flex its power over app and music markets, not just the mobile phone market it most obviously plays in.

No surprise, then, that columnists, campaigners and multiple parliaments around the world have floated the idea that the tech giants need to be broken up. But what might that look like? And is it even the right answer? We might, I’d suggest, do better to focus on something even bigger than the scale of these companies themselves. Namely, the unimaginably vast scale of the data—terabytes and terabytes of it—on which the foundation of each of these empires is built. This is data about us, our lives, our interests, our locations, and our connections. And it is the single thing we need to keep in mind if we want to come up with a practical plan to keep the tech giants’ power in check.

Trust buster: Theodore Roosevelt broke up outsized corporations
© ARCHIVE PICS / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
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In Prospect’s March issue: Gaby Hinsliff explains why all sides of the Brexit debate feel like they’re losing. She says that the Brexit war has raged on for two and half years and disfigured British politics in the process, leaving Remainers in mourning and Leavers crying betrayal. Elsewhere in the issue: James Ball, Martin Moore and Barbara Speed examine how we should be less worried about the tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google and more worried about the data they hold about us. Ball argues that breaking up these huge companies isn’t the answer; Moore asks what would happens when a tech giant wants to run a smart city, and Speed looks at the increasing trend of tracking everything in our daily lives from the amount of water we drink to how many notifications we receive to our smartphone. Also, Rachel Sylvester profiles Sajid Javid, the Cabinet minister positioning himself for the top job.