Early web pioneers dreamed of a decentralised, democratic internet beyond the reach of corporate and government power. What they got was a handful of tech giants dominating markets and digital services. According to traffic analysis website Statcounter, Google has around a 93 per cent share of the search engine market worldwide; its nearest rival, Bing, has 4 per cent.

This degree of dominance presents a growing risk that market leaders have a reduced incentive to offer good deals, innovate or expand consumer choice. Downstream, technology platforms have also been associated with the rise of precarious and low-quality jobs which entrench economic inequalities.

Much of the discrepancy between tech giants and their rivals can be attributed to three things: network effects, the power of data and the platform business model. Network effects reinforce the power of larger firms and “first movers” that have already succeeded in capturing a critical mass of consumers. This is particularly important on social media sites where the value to the user is represented by the volume of potential connections. Data (in tandem with AI) can be used to generate more sophisticated services, that in turn attract more users, who then provide more data. Platform business models can scale rapidly as they often rely on the existing internet, as opposed to depending upon new physical infrastructure or the recruitment of large numbers of staff.

The existing regulatory tools intended to rebalance market power were designed before the digital age and are proving less and less effective in this new commercial landscape. For instance, measures that focus on blocking mergers between larger companies have limited effect given how bigger firms often buy startups before they scale.

Just as the regulators of the past failed to imagine how the internet of today would re-shape markets and society, are we also guilty of a failure of imagination when it comes to the internet of the future? There are already signs of a so-called “splinternet”, where the web starts to fragment into regional fiefdoms—a development that has potentially far-reaching implications for geopolitics and freedom of expression. Meanwhile, next-generation innovations like Web3—a collection of decentralised technologies and protocols—are sparking a flurry of hype.

Given the frenetic pace of change in this area, our contributors all argue for a levelling of the playing field. For Geoff Mulgan, this means a radical rethink of how we go about taxing these new business models, while Cory Doctorow looks for ingenious ways to incentivise tech monopolies to unwind themselves. James Plunkett sees scope for refreshing our regulatory toolkit, with a view to opening up—not just breaking up—the tech giants.

Winners take all was published as part of Minister for the Future, bold new thinking on the long-term issues policymakers can't afford to ignore, in partnership with Prospect. Illustrations by Ian Morris.

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