Are online monopolies a good thing?
The cover story in last week’s Economist looked at the growing global dominance of internet giants such as Google and Facebook. This was partly driven by the fact that the European Parliament recently passed a resolution to more tightly regulate internet search and potentially break up Google, as well as by ongoing worries about competition and online privacy.
So are effective online monopolies (Google has 90% of the European search market for example) a good or bad thing?
Obviously in the real world monopolies are viewed with suspicion, particularly when a dominant position is then used to raise prices, unfairly squeeze competitors and generally provide a poor deal to customers. But a monopoly on its own is not enough for regulators to step in. In many niche markets (say chemicals) the investment needed to compete with a dominant incumbent would put off any new entrants, so it becomes a monopoly by default. If it doesn’t abuse its position regulators tend to just monitor the situation without taking action.
So, no-one would argue against the fact that monopolies need to be watched closely. But what is interesting is the difference between the online and offline worlds, in four key ways. Firstly, the cost of entering an internet market is relatively small – you’d don’t need to build an expensive factory, but can rely on scalable, inexpensive cloud-based servers and storage to host your business. This makes expansion easy, particularly given the widespread adoption of the internet and mobile phones across the globe, providing a proven way of connecting with customers.
The second factor that causes internet businesses to grow exponentially is the network effect. Essentially the more users on a service, such as Facebook, the better it is for everyone involved as there are more people to interact with. In turn this attracts more people in a virtuous circle. It can work the other way though – as the fate of early social networks such as MySpace show.
Thirdly, the majority of the internet services being discussed are free to consumers. So they don’t directly see any negative impact from the monopoly (such as a rise in costs). What isn’t immediately obvious to users is the price of free. Essentially their personal data is used to power advertising, direct mail and other marketing campaigns, with many consumers having a hazy understanding of what their information is being used for, or how to increase privacy settings. In fact, it is advertisers that can feel the impact of higher prices, given the online control of the internet giants.
The final difference, and one that The Economist makes much of, is the speed of change in the technology space, and how this makes today’s monopolies tomorrow’s has-beens. Companies find it hard to jump from leading one wave of innovation to competing in a new space. IBM dominated the mainframe market, but has had to reinvent itself in order to survive, while the replacement of the personal computer with tablets and smartphones has dealt a major blow to Microsoft.
However, these are still multi-billion dollar companies and have hardly withered away. Therefore in my view, technology innovation alone is not enough to regulate the internet giants. What is needed aren’t heavy handed rules, but a more measured approach that balances the needs of consumers with the speed of innovation and the potential competitive impact of monopoly positions. It is an incredibly difficult balancing act – and will require give and take from both sides if it is to succeed. Done right and new breakthrough services will be allowed to grow, but without trampling on other businesses. Get it wrong and innovation is stifled, potentially harming consumers and businesses who want to access the latest technology and services.
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