Stopping the robber barons

Luke JohnsonReading the combative words of @LukeJohnsonRCP in the Sunday Times (paywall) today, I was struck by the juxtaposition of a free market capitalist championing some sort of nationalist government intervention to throttle enterprise and innovation.

He writes, “We have a huge and successful creative industry, which is being gradually eviscerated by the depredations of parasites such as Google. The decline of the printing industry, the music business, retailing, the taxi trade and dozens of others owes a great deal to the tech pirates. Our politicians are star-struck by the tech barons, and too often fall for their blandishments. So regulations about health and safety, copyright protection, tax compliance and employment are brushed aside.“

While I agree with the majority of the piece, given our capitalist markets just what is the alternative? When innovation sweeps in – the tech world would say disrupts – to improve the user experience, it’s more than difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. Those in love with their apps and their tech are not likely to relinquish their envisioned self empowerment and revert back to lesser experiences.

Hard globalisation is now commonplace with companies competing in local and international markets. All resources are being dispersed and territorial nationalities are diminishing, as Western companies expand eastward and visa versa. I know many jewels have been sold from the corporate crown but using Mr J’s arguments, what should we do of the expanding BP, GSK, Vodafone and the like?

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Microsoft (US) has dominated office productivity since the time of the fax machine. Germany with Mercedes, BMW, VW et al has been the exporter of choice for the world’s middle classes. But the relatively new internet is teaching us that globalisation is increasingly monopolistic as winners now crush opponents rather than tolerate healthy oligopolies. Facebook win, Twitter is a very distant second. Google win, Bing stumbles behind. Uber win, Lyft get silver. Netflix, WhatsApp, Amazon all win… and so goes the zero sum game.

Johnson goes on, “…we should not willingly embrace a future where Britain becomes an impoverished branch economy. Instead, we should demand the genuine investment needed to become a true knowledge economy.” 

National interest should come into consideration but when there are clear advantages (e.g. Google’s speed, accuracy and convenience vrs the Yellow Pages book) isn’t it a no brainer for users? I don’t doubt this is a slippery slope where, once addicted to their highly potent services, these behemoths will hold all the power, data and revenues. By all means let’s invest more to become that ‘true knowledge economy’ and I’m 100% behind ‘constructing the education system to foster it’ but isn’t this awfully similar to our toothless policies of allowing national infrastructure projects like power and utilities to be owned or controlled by foreign firms?

Disappointingly for Johnson, he doesn’t really allude to the strategies he’d employ to remedy the situation. I think its fair to say these henchmen of the Internet want British users but even in matters of tax, how do you force them to contribute adequately?

If this is all a genuine problem, where is the solution? Where do we draw the line? When does a patriotic business slant become xenophobic? The rate of take up is increasing so if there is some sort of reset, doesn’t it need to be right now before the leech becomes too painful to remove from the patient?

Push them hard to play ball. Redraw international tax law to cope in this new Minority Report world. ISPs and data are a key part of the monopolies’ infrastructures; control them and you take back some of the power. I’m no barrister but that looks a long way off and what politician has that appetite in our social media-fuelled days of minimal attention span?

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