Their thirst for power is immense: In just a few years, US digital platforms have seized control of the internet. They've established impenetrable monopolies using unethical tactics, manipulating both web traffic and revenue to reap substantial profits, writes German media expert Martin Andree, who has just published the book "Big Tech muss weg!" (Big Tech Must Go!).
In his book, Andree suggests that there's room for resistance until 2029, but, after that, it may become impossible. "If we don't act soon, it could spell the demise of our democracy!" he told DW.
Martin Andree works as a media researcher at the University of Cologne. In his previous book — "Atlas der digitalen Welt" (Atlas of the Digital World), published in 2020 — he had already examined the immense influence being amassed by major US internet platforms.
Andree found in his research that the majority of online activity is concentrated in just a handful of websites, gathering 70% of internet traffic, while the remaining digital space resembles a "vast graveyard."
'Hostile takeover' of the internet
According to Andree, Google, Facebook, Amazon and their counterparts have executed a "hostile takeover" of the internet by exploiting regulatory loopholes and thus misleading state institutions. "This leads to a glaring and feudalistic system of regulation," he says, meaning that the companies can dictate the conditions for e-commerce on their platforms or which user data they can collect.
Through strategic lobbying tactics, they have engaged in a protracted game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities for years.
Furthermore, advertising invariably gravitates toward where the audience and purchasers are. Consequently, profits funnel into the treasuries of tech giants, helping them to amass wealth and, in turn, purchase competitors. Case in point: Facebook (now Meta) acquired the messaging service WhatsApp in 2014. Another instance: Elon Musk's billion-dollar acquisition of Twitter (now X) a year ago.
Total control of the public
Media companies, bloggers, public broadcasters, and even global corporations, are the primary victims. They stand no chance against the tech giants. Fewer people visit their websites. When editorial media share content on platforms like Youtube or Instagram, they do so on the platform's terms, without the option to redirect users to their own websites using outlinks. Andree warns that in a few years, a handful of US platforms will control the foundation of our political opinion formation.
Furthermore, the economy is increasingly falling under the dominance of internet giants. More sales and transactions are occurring on these major platforms, all subject to the terms set by big tech companies. Valuable user data is also flowing into their hands. Andree points out that knowledge about customer preferences can be used to unfair advantage and turned into profit, like producing custom products "bypassing manufacturers."
For instance, Amazon offers its product line, "Amazon Basics." Apple, with its payment service, has long been entrenched in the financial industry.
Fair competition, Andree states, is a thing of the past.
David against Goliath
Martin Andree's criticism may sound sharp and, at times, alarmist.
Many voices of caution have emerged since the tech industry's initial mission, rooted in the Californian spirit of the 1960s, to bring new freedom, exchange and transparency to the world.
Yet, few have explained the "brave new internet world" as comprehensively as Andree, outlining winners and losers so clearly and highlighting the undeniable risks to democracy and the economy.
But Andree remains hopeful: "The internet corporations' concentration of power can be dismantled," he asserts. "We can easily free the internet, reintroduce pluralism into the traffic, and eliminate the existing misregulation."
Liberating the Internet
Andree's blueprint for "liberating the internet" is based on 15 core principles. Enforcing open standards to enable users to share videos, images and texts across platforms is paramount. Furthermore, content providers must be granted the freedom to directly link to their websites. Tech giants should also disclose their revenues and profits for proper taxation by countries. Also, it must be ensured that user data is accessible to all competitors. The call is now for legislators and regulators to take action.
"All these measures are cost-effective, and most of them can be swiftly implemented if we genuinely seek a solution," states the author.
This article was originally written in German.