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What can Canada learn from the U.S. Congressional hearing on Big Tech monopolies?

What can Canada learn from the U.S. Congressional hearing on Big Tech monopolies?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on July 29.

In late July, the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Antitrust held an important hearing on the monopolistic power of Big Tech — Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. I recommend watching the hearing; it’s long but worth it if you want insight into what we need to do to avoid damaging our economy and society further.

Big Tech has been in the political crosshairs for several years, but public condemnation has not negatively impacted these firms. Today, the top five firms in the American S&P500 comprise Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook, representing 22 per cent of total market capitalization. Criticism has barely dented investor confidence in them. We’ll have to wait and see whether this recent hearing will do more.

What does all of this mean for Canada?

Well, the Canadian federal government launched its Digital Charter last year in order to rethink the way we should regulate the digital economy. Not much has emerged since, however, although the U.S. hearing provides us with some sense of the rethinking we need to do.

First, no one knows how to value our personal data properly, which means we don’t know how to govern its use. Current accounting standards don’t allow firms to treat data as an asset. We’re left with a simple assumption that more data is better. It’s critical to establish standards for treating data as an asset, as it will better illuminate the data monopolies in the digital economy.

Second, once we know where the data is and its value, we can regulate Big Tech firms properly. Regulating the use of our data requires us to know who has it, what they have, and how they plan to use it, all of which should be included in any new standards. We’ll then have a better sense of whether a particular merger or acquisition leads to a greater concentration of data or not.

Third, standards and regulations will enable us to make alternative choices about how to govern our data. Currently, we leave it to technology firms to do as they wish. With a clearer sense of our data we can make choices about whether we want a more collective regulation of our data, treating it less as an economic resource and more as a social good. The data trusts proposed for Sidewalk Toronto are one example, but there are many ways we could manage our data for collective benefit.

Finally, we can’t assume that all Big Tech firms are the same: they collect different types of data and use it in different ways. As platforms, though, they tend to create enclave economies in which they control data collection and use, competition, fees and costs, and even the rules of the game. They reflect a broader trend in America identified by the economist Thomas Philippon away from competition and towards monopoly, resulting in higher consumer costs and the corruption of politics.

Canada needs to avoid this American path, and we can build that into the Digital Charter.

Kean Birch is an associate professor in the department of geography at York University.
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