Have we become too reliant on Big Tech firms?

When lockdown hits on 23 March in the UK, Mr Ingram had to shut his shops in Edinburgh and Dundee, and sell his stock through Amazon Marketplace. Now, his sales are 40% higher than last year. “Without Amazon, we would have had to furlough all employees for all of lockdown. Instead, we furloughed them for four weeks until we adjusted ourselves to the new normal, and then we could retrain staff to help us fulfil our online orders,” he says. It’s not just Amazon that has been used more during the pandemic. Apple and Android smartphones and tablets, Facebook’s apps and Microsoft tools have provided crucial links with friends, family and colleagues. And that’s certainly been great for investors and the billionaires behind these firms. Shares in Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft all hit all-time highs on the stock market in June. Between 18 March and 19 May, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos saw his wealth swell by $34.6bn (£27.6bn) and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth rose by $25bn (£19.9bn), according to a recent report. But is this reliance on Big Tech getting out of control? “Amazon have gone from being the dominant gatekeepers for online commerce to being the dominant gatekeeper for much of retail because of the lockdowns,” says Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the US organisation that challenges concentrated economic and political power. Meanwhile, this week in the UK government announced that it would be using a coronavirus-tracing app based on technology from Apple and Google. Germany, Italy and Denmark are among other countries also using that system. Big Tech firms have been getting even bigger during the pandemic and their success means they have plenty of funds to snap up other businesses. For example, in May Facebook announced its second biggest deal – a plan to buy a 10% stake in India’s Jio, a telecoms and digital services business. “All of them will be in the M&A [mergers and acquisitions] game if they’re not already. Start-ups are more likely to sell out during the pandemic when they might struggle to meet their obligations and the buyout looks especially attractive – the pandemic is speeding up the buyout date in some cases,” says Sandeep Vaheesan, legal director at the Open Markets Institute, a think-tank that studies corporate concentration. Before the pandemic, there had been scrutiny on Big Tech. The US House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee sent requests for information to Amazon, Apple, Google owner Alphabet and Facebook in September 2019, with the government concerned that only a small number of companies hold such a big share of the digital market. Coronavirus may have delayed these investigations, but they will still be carried out.

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