America’s biggest tech giants are nothing if not popular. Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon rank as some of the most well-liked brands in the world. Pollsters find that 86 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of Google and 80 percent share a favorable impression of Amazon. The reason is simple — these companies’ products are entertaining, accessible and seemingly cheap
But their growing dominance is giving rise to an insidious trend that we shouldn’t so happily accept. Just last week, billionaire philanthropist George Soros gave a speech in Davos, Switzerland, in which he attacked Facebook and Google for “inducing people to give up their autonomy” and driving inequality. He’s not wrong. In fact, tech giants are just like the monopolists and robber barons that ruled the American economy a century ago. But, while Standard Oil’s monopoly was as obvious as the smoke-belching refineries it controlled, the powers of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon are less transparent — if not entirely secret.
An average Facebook user has no way of knowing or appreciating the mountain of data the company has collected on them. And the average Amazon shopper is unlikely know that the site steers customers toward its preferred (and often more expensive) products. America’s biggest tech giants have at least as much power as John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan did in the early 20th century; it is just much harder to see.
Tech companies can dominate sectors without actually producing anything in those markets. Apple does not produce any music, but it nonetheless controls a huge amount of the industry. Facebook doesn’t produce any news, but news organizations are highly dependent on the social platform. And these corporations continue to expand. Amazon, for instance, has entered the grocery business — via its buyout of Whole Foods — and just last week announced a new healthcare project.