Accelerating the transition to an ever more digital existence, the coronavirus pandemic has tightened the hold of tech giants on the lives of billions of customers.
Governments and users are belatedly coming to terms with the power wielded by Apple and Amazon, especially developed this year through their role in everything from setting up video meetings to making purchases for us.
Most of the planet spent at least part of 2020 on lockdown, and when Western consumers clicked on Google and Facebook, hundreds of millions of Chinese users turned to Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent or Xiaomi. .
These “superstars” of online capitalism “gave the impression, in a world where so many things that seemed solid are now fragile, that they are above everything and even invincible,” said Parisian economist Joelle Toledano.
As governments spend billions of dollars to avoid widespread bankruptcies and mass unemployment, shares of these companies have risen since January: Facebook shares have risen 35%, Amazon 67% and Apple 68%.
Zoom, created in 2011 by a Californian engineer, saw its price jump 600% in 2020, while the value of Airbnb shares doubled on the day of its IPO.
Meanwhile, Chinese apps, long confined to the local market, are exploding in app stores around the world: notably TikTok but also SHEIN for clothing shopping and another video-sharing platform, Likee.
Take back control
The pandemic may have bolstered these high-flying digital giants, but it has also spurred calls to regulate the conglomerates that continue to grow through hundreds of acquisitions.
“Until 2017, the benefits, especially in terms of innovation, were seen as outweighing the damages,” said Toledano, who wrote a book on taking back control of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple.
That has changed, however, as they are now accused of not paying enough taxes, unfair competition, theft of media content and spreading false information.
The European Union has unveiled an ambitious set of new rules to cut their wings, ranging from limits on their market power to cracking down on hate speech and requirements for transparency on algorithms.
Learning from past failures – delayed and lengthy procedures and weak penalties – the digital services law could see companies facing crushing fines or even bans from the European market for infringements.
Bloc competition chief Margrethe Vestager said the bills would bring “order to chaos” online, putting the brakes on the huge “gatekeepers” who dominate the markets.
The United States is also acting over competition concerns, with U.S. federal and state antitrust authorities filing lawsuits against Facebook on December 9 in an attempt to roll back their Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions.
“For nearly a decade, Facebook has used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and stifle competition, all to the detriment of everyday users,” said Letitia James, New York’s attorney general.
In October, the Department of Justice and 11 states launched a lawsuit against Google, accusing it of illegally strengthening its monopoly on online searches and advertising.
In China, meanwhile, authorities have been tightening content regulations for several months and recently announced new rules for e-commerce.
The dramatic November suspension of the IPO of online payments giant Ant Group – which is expected to raise a record $ 34 billion – has been interpreted by many observers as a shot through the arcs of the industry. from the Chinese government.
And last week, market regulators launched an anti-monopoly investigation into parent company Ant Alibaba shortly after Communist Party leaders pledged to crack down on “disorderly capital expansion.”
Little economic damage
Despite public outcry over their failure to contain disinformation or hate speech, among other things, tech companies saw little impact on their bottom line.
In the United States, Facebook was boycotted in July by a hundred advertisers against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, without major economic damage.
Platforms Uber and Lyft, which refused to hire their thousands of drivers as employees as required by California law, succeeded in convincing voters to back them in a crucial referendum in November.
And in France, Amazon is accused of destroying small businesses, exploiting its employees and promoting overconsumption with disregard for the environment. However, the French branch of Jeff Bezos’ company achieved record sales during the “Black Friday” sales manna.
“ Surveillance capitalism ”
Shoshana Zuboff, professor at Harvard Business School and author of a book on “surveillance capitalism,” denounced the sale of personal data to advertisers.
Speaking at a European Parliament panel last week, she said Google’s possible acquisition of wearable fitness device maker Fitbit should be blocked.
“You can’t trust Google’s assurances,” she said.
Some argue, however, that targeted advertising is not new.
Jacques Cremer, professor at the Toulouse School of Economics in France, said it was “normal” for Facebook, Google or Twitter “to use the data they have on me to show me advertisements”.
“We need to regulate the platforms, but be careful not to make them scapegoats,” said Cremer, who advised the European Commission last year on a proposed regulation.
“They are incredibly imaginative companies, extraordinarily well run, and providing high quality service.”