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Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Reforming the web

Society leads, the law follows: For decades, US antitrust laws — originally designed to curb the power of 19th-century corporate giants in railroads, oil and steel — have long been hailed as “the Magna Carta of enterprise,” and now may be turned to rein in the monopoly power assumed by the world’s biggest tech companies. Experts often argue over what should be subject to regulation. Should guidelines look at content moderation? Should legislators push for more security and data transparency? Is an antitrust watchdog the right tool?

2020 was the year that policymakers began to pay attention: Responding to the growing so-called “techlash” against the influence of tech companies, regulators in the US, EU and the UK are all now considering resorting to anti-trust action. Beijing is cracking down on its own cluster of tech bn’aires, and, in an attempt to protect its faltering press, Australia is attempting to force Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for the content they use on their platforms. In the same way that Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire was broken up a century ago, antitrust action could result in some of the largest technology companies being split into smaller entities to protect the market from anti-competitive practices. The US Justice Department is considering whether to force Google to sell its Chrome browser while a group close to the Biden White House is recommending that the administration expand the antitrust investigations into Google and Facebook, and advocate breaking them up.

The creator of the internet has called for a rethink: To save the internet from becoming a tool used for dystopian ends, Tim Berners-Lee has called for “data sovereignty” to be made a foundational concept of how we use and operate the web. This would mean giving users control of their data and personal information — and putting in place mechanisms to prevent people’s information from being harvested without their informed consent. Companies would still be allowed extract, store and analyse personal data, but only after the individual agrees to let them.

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