[LINK] The New Monopolists
kim at holburn.net
Mon Nov 15 12:40:23 AEDT 2010
> In the Grip of the New Monopolists
> Do away with Google? Break up Facebook? We can't imagine life without them—and that's the problem
> By TIM WU
> How hard would it be to go a week without Google? Or, to up the ante, without Facebook, Amazon, Skype, Twitter, Apple, eBay and Google? It wouldn't be impossible, but for even a moderate Internet user, it would be a real pain. Forgoing Google and Amazon is just inconvenient; forgoing Facebook or Twitter means giving up whole categories of activity. For most of us, avoiding the Internet's dominant firms would be a lot harder than bypassing Starbucks, Wal-Mart or other companies that dominate some corner of what was once called the real world.
> The Internet has long been held up as a model for what the free market is supposed to look like—competition in its purest form. So why does it look increasingly like a Monopoly board? Most of the major sectors today are controlled by one dominant company or an oligopoly. Google "owns" search; Facebook, social networking; eBay rules auctions; Apple dominates online content delivery; Amazon, retail; and so on.
> Could it be that the free market on the Internet actually tends toward monopolies? Could it even be that demand, of all things, is actually winnowing the online free market—that Americans, so diverse and individualistic, actually love these monopolies?
> The history of American information firms suggests that the answer to both questions is "yes." Over the long haul, competition has been the exception, monopoly the rule. Apart from brief periods of openness created by new inventions or antitrust breakups, every medium, starting with the telegraph, has eventually proved to be a case study in monopoly. In fact, many of those firms are still around, if not quite as powerful as they once were, including AT&T, Paramount and NBC.
> We wouldn't fret over monopoly so much if it came with a term limit. If Facebook's rule over social networking were somehow restricted to, say, 10 years—or better, ended the moment the firm lost its technical superiority—the very idea of monopoly might seem almost wholesome. The problem is that dominant firms are like congressional incumbents and African dictators: They rarely give up even when they are clearly past their prime. Facing decline, they do everything possible to stay in power. And that's when the rest of us suffer.
> AT&T's near-absolute dominion over the telephone lasted from about 1914 until the 1984 breakup, all the while delaying the advent of lower prices and innovative technologies that new entrants would eventually bring. The Hollywood studios took effective control of American film in the 1930s, and even now, weakened versions of them remain in charge. Information monopolies can have very long half-lives.
> Info-monopolies tend to be good-to-great in the short term and bad-to-terrible in the long term. For a time, firms deliver great conveniences, powerful efficiencies and dazzling innovations. That's why a young monopoly is often linked to a medium's golden age. Today, a single search engine has made virtually everyone's life simpler and easier, just as a single phone network did 100 years ago. Monopolies also generate enormous profits that can be reinvested into expansion, research and even public projects: AT&T wired America and invented the transistor; Google is scanning the world's libraries.
> The downside shows up later, as the monopolist ages and the will to innovate is replaced by mere will to power. In the 1930s, AT&T took the strangely Luddite measure of suppressing its own invention of magnetic recording, for fear it would deter use of the telephone. The costs of the monopoly are mostly borne by entrepreneurs and innovators. Over the long run, the consequences afflict the public in more subtle ways, as what were once highly dynamic parts of the economy begin to stagnate.
> —Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School. His new book is "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires."
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