Big Tech

Big Tech, also known as the Tech Giants, Big Four, or Big Five, is a name given to the four or five largest, most dominant, and most prestigious companies in the information technology industry of the United States—namely Amazon, Apple, Google (Alphabet), Facebook, and Microsoft.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

The logos of the 'Big Five' tech companies: Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.
The "Big Tech" companies. From left: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft.

The tech giants are seen as the dominant players in their respective sub-verticals of the tech industry namely: e-commerce, online advertising, consumer electronics, cloud computing, computer software, media streaming, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and social networking. They have been among the most valuable public companies globally,[7] each having had a maximum market capitalization ranging from around $1 trillion to around $2 trillion USD.[8] They are additionally considered to be among the most prestigious and selective employers in the world.[9][10]

Concerns over monopolistic practices have led to antitrust investigations from the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission in the United States,[11][12][13] and the European Commission.[14] Commentators have questioned the impact of these companies on privacy, market power, free speech and censorship, and national security and law enforcement.[15] It has been speculated that it may not be possible to live in the digital world day-to-day outside of the ecosystem created by the companies.[16]

The tech giants have drawn comparisons to other groupings of dominant and prestigious companies including China's BATX, the Big Three management consulting firms, and the Big Oil companies.

Membership and definitionsEdit

The term Big Tech is often broken down into more specific sub-groupings, often referred to by the following names or acronyms.[17] Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, is represented as a "G" in these acronyms.

Big FourEdit

Alphabet Inc. (Google), Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are commonly referred to as "Big Four" or "GAFA".[18] They have also been referred to as "The Four" or as the "Four Horsemen", a literary reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament.[19][20][21][22][23][24]

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, author Phil Simon, and NYU professor Scott Galloway have each grouped the GAFA companies together, on the basis that those companies have driven major societal change via their dominance and role in online activities. This is unlike other large tech companies such as Microsoft and IBM, according to Simon and Galloway.[23][25] Eric Schmidt has excluded Microsoft from the grouping: "Microsoft is not driving the consumer revolution in the minds of the consumers."[26]

Big FiveEdit

A more inclusive grouping, referred to as "Big Five" or "GAFAM" defines Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft as the tech giants.[27][28][29][30]

Besides Saudi Aramco, the GAFAM companies were the five most valuable public corporations in the world in January 2020 as measured by market capitalization.[7] Nikos Smyrnaios justified the GAFAM grouping as an oligopoly that appears to take control of the Internet by concentrating market and financial power and using patent rights and copyright within a context of capitalism.[31]

FAANGEdit

"FAANG" refers to five prominent American technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google.[32][33]

The term was coined by Jim Cramer, the television host of CNBC's Mad Money in 2013, calling these companies "totally dominant in their markets".[34] Until 2017, FANG was limited to Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google. Another variant of this acronym is "FANGAM", which includes Microsoft.[35]

Other companiesEdit

The Chinese firms Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and Xiaomi, collectively referred to as BATX, are often seen as the competitor companies of Big Tech. Although smaller in market capitalization, Twitter has sometimes been considered a member of "Big Tech" due to major social and political influence of the platform.[36][37] This characterization has featured in political debates and economic commentary.[36][38][39]

Market dominanceEdit

 
The 10 largest corporations by market capitalization

The tech giants have replaced the energy giants such as ExxonMobil, BP, Gazprom, PetroChina and Royal Dutch Shell ("Big Oil") from the first decade of the 21st century at the top of the NASDAQ stock index. They have also outpaced the traditional big media companies such as Disney, AT&T, and Comcast by a factor of 10.[40] In 2017, the five biggest American IT companies had a combined valuation of over $3.3 trillion, and made up more than 40 percent of the value of the Nasdaq 100.[41] It has been observed that the companies remain popular by providing their services to consumers for free.[42]

AmazonEdit

By 2017, Amazon was the dominant market leader in e-commerce with 50% of all online sales going through the platform; cloud computing, with nearly 32% market share, and live-streaming with Twitch owning 75.6% market share. With Amazon Alexa and Echo, Amazon is additionally the market leader in the area of artificial Intelligence-based personal digital assistants and smart speakers (Amazon Echo) with 69% market share followed by Google (Google Nest) at 25% market share.

AppleEdit

Apple sells high-margin smartphones and other consumer electronics devices, sharing a duopoly with Google in the field of mobile operating systems: 27% of the market share belonging to Apple (iOS) and 72% to Google (Android).[41][43]

GoogleEdit

Google, Facebook and Amazon have been referred to as the "Big Three" of digital advertising.[44] Google is the leader in online search (Google Search), online video sharing (YouTube) and online mapping-based navigation (Google Maps). Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving car subsidiary, is considered to be the leader in autonomous vehicle technology.

FacebookEdit

In addition to social networking, Facebook dominates the functions of online image sharing (Instagram) and online messaging (WhatsApp).

MicrosoftEdit

Microsoft continues to dominate in desktop operating system market share (Microsoft Windows)[45] and in office productivity software (Microsoft Office). Microsoft is also the second biggest company in the cloud computing industry (Microsoft Azure),[46] after Amazon, and is also one of the biggest players in the video game industry (Xbox).

CausesEdit

Smyrnaios argued in 2016 that four characteristics were key in the emergence of GAFA: the theory of media and information technology convergence, financialization, economic deregulation and globalization.[31] He argued that the promotion of technology convergence by people such as Nicholas Negroponte made it appear credible and desirable for the Internet to evolve into an oligopoly. Autoregulation and the difficulty of politicians to understand software issues made governmental intervention against monopolies ineffective. Financial deregulation led to GAFA's big profit margins (all four except for Amazon had about 20–25 percent profit margins in 2014 according to Smyrnaios).

InnovationEdit

"For decades, whole regions, nations even, have tried to model themselves on a particular ideal of innovation, the lifeblood of the modern economy. From Apple to Facebook, Silicon Valley’s freewheeling ecosystem of new, nimble corporations created massive wealth and retilted the world’s economic axis." The tech giants began as small engineering-focused firms building new products when their larger competitors were less innovative (such as Xerox when Apple was founded in 1976). The companies engaged in timely investment in rising technologies of the personal computer era, dotcom era, e-commerce, rise of mobile devices, social media, and cloud computing. The characteristics of these technologies allowed the companies to expand quickly with market adoption. According to Alexis Madrigal, the style of innovation that initially drove Silicon Valley firms to grow is being lost, shifting to a form of growing through acquisitions. Additionally, large companies tend to focus on process improvements rather than new products.[47] However, the Big Tech firms all rank near the top on the list of companies by research and development spending.[48]

Among those who believe that acquisitions will weaken an original innovative atmosphere is scholar Tim Wu, Wu pointed out that when Facebook acquired Instagram, it simply eliminated a competitive threat that may have presented a fresher competitor had it remained independent. He also states however that when Microsoft first emerged, with its innovations in personal computing and operating systems, it created platforms for new innovations by others.[49] Wu formulated the idea of oligopoly "kill zones" created by acquiring competitors that approach their market.[50][51] Big Tech operating in digital markets and being inherently focused on technology mean that Big Tech is more likely to focus on innovation than other groups of large industry dominating corporations before them. According to a report by the think tank ITIF, acquisitions being possible supports innovation, arguing the larger firm is less likely to simply copy the process of the smaller firm.[51]

GlobalizationEdit

According to Smyrnaios, globalization has allowed GAFAM to minimize its global taxation load and pay international workers much lower wages than would be required in the United States.[31]

Oligopoly maintenanceEdit

Smyrnaios argued in 2016 that GAFA combines six vertical levels of power, data centers, internet connectivity, computer hardware including smartphones, operating systems, Web browsers and other user-level software, and online services. He also discussed horizontal concentration of power, in which diverse services such as email, instant messaging, online searching, downloading and streaming are combined internally within any of the GAFA members.[31] For example Google and Microsoft pay to have their web search engines appear as first and second in Apple's iPhone.[52]

According to The Economist, "Network and scale effects mean that size begets size, while data can act as a barrier to entry."[53]

Antitrust investigationsEdit

United StatesEdit

In the United States antitrust scrutiny and investigations of members of Big Tech began in the late 1990s and early 2000s leading to the first major American antitrust law case against a member of Big Tech (Microsoft) in 2001 in which the U.S. government accused Microsoft of illegally maintaining its monopoly position in the personal computer (PC) market primarily through the legal and technical restrictions it put on the abilities of PC manufacturers (OEMs) and users to uninstall Internet Explorer and use other programs such as Netscape and Java. At trial, the district court ruled that Microsoft's actions constituted unlawful monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed most of the district court's judgments. The DOJ later announced on September 6, 2001 that it was no longer seeking to break up Microsoft and would instead seek a lesser antitrust penalty in exchange for a settlement by Microsoft in which Microsoft agreed to share its application programming interfaces with third-party companies and appoint a panel of three people who would have full access to Microsoft's systems, records, and source code for five years in order to ensure compliance. On November 1, 2002, Judge Kollar-Kotelly released a judgment accepting most of the proposed DOJ settlement and on June 30, 2004, the U.S. appeals court unanimously approved the settlement with the Justice Department.

In the late 2010s and early 2020s the Big Tech industry again became the center of antitrust attention from the United States Department of Justice and the United States Federal Trade Commission that included requests to provide information about prior acquisitions and potentially anticompetitive practices. Some Democratic candidates running for president proposed plans to break up Big Tech companies and regulate them as utilities. "The role of technology in the economy and in our lives grows more important every day," said FTC Chairman Joseph Simons. "As I’ve noted in the past, it makes sense for us to closely examine technology markets to ensure consumers benefit from free and fair competition."[54][55]

The United States House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law began investigating Big Tech on an antitrust basis in June 2020, and published a report in January 2021 concluding that Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google each operating in antitrust manners that requires some type of corrective action that either could be implemented through Congressional action or through legal actions taken by the Department of Justice, including the option of splitting up these companies.[56][57]

On June 24, 2021 the United States House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law held hearings on earlier introduced bills which would limit the scope of Big Tech as we know it. Among those bills was HR 3825, Ending Platform Monopolies Act introduced by Representative Pramila Jayapal which passed through the Committee. [58] The specific purpose of the bill is to prohibit platform holders to also compete in those same platforms. For example, Amazon attempted to purchase Diapers.com and when they resisted and refused to sell, Amazon started selling diaper related products at a loss which Diapers.com could not sustain. Amazon being the platform owner as well a player in the platform could easily sustain continued loss. The point came when Diapers.com could not sustain and they eventually, without any other choice ended up selling to Amazon out of fear even though Walmart was willing to pay more. [59]

The issue of consumer welfare arose in the subcommittee but was voted down and rejected as the majority held the opinion that the reason we have these monopolies today is mainly because of the consumer welfare standard. This doctrine was introduced over 100 years ago and the committee would not adopt the consumer welfare standard in HR 3825.

The consumer welfare doctrine is an ideology which states that if the consumer enjoys lower pricing as a result of corporate mergers or decision making then those actions are not generally antitrust, no matter if there has been any damage done to the market or society. The newly appointed chair to the FTC, Lina Khan has held different views as outlined in her publication Amazon's Antitrust Paradox.

The recently introduced bills show that we will eventually drop or diminish the consumer welfare standard and move towards a marketplace welfare standard which promotes competition and levels the playing field for startups and businesses which have not fully grown.

There has been opposition from Big Tech regarding these bills and any legislation to trim them. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook implied that his company's success is important to the national security of the United States. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple spoke to House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi in an attempt to slow down the bills.

The spirit of the antitrust law is to protect consumers from the anticompetitive behavior of businesses that have either monopoly power in their market or companies that have banded together to exert cartel market behavior. Monopoly or cartel collusion creates market disadvantages for consumers. However, the antitrust law clearly distinguishes between purposeful monopolies and businesses that found themselves in a monopoly position purely as the result of business success. The purpose of the antitrust law is to stop businesses from deliberately creating monopoly power.[60]

Consumer welfare, not assumptions that large firms are automatically harmful to competition, should be the core consideration of any antitrust action. The consumer welfare standard serves as the "good reason" in antitrust enforcement as it appropriately looks at the impact on consumers and economic efficiency.[61] So far, it is not apparent that there has been a harm to consumer welfare and many technology companies continue to innovate and are bringing real benefits to consumers.[62]

On July 9, 2021, President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 14036, "Promoting Competition in the American Economy", a sweeping array of initiatives across the executive branch. Related to Big Tech, the order established a executive branch-wide policy to more thoroughly scrutinize mergers involving Big Tech companies, with focus on the acquisition of new, potentially disruptive technology from smaller firms by the larger companies. The order also instructed the FTC to establish rules related to data collection and its use by Big Tech companies in promoting their own service.[63][64]

European UnionEdit

 
The European Commission, which has imposed sanctions on several of the high tech giants.

In June 2020, the European Union opened two new antitrust investigations into practices by Apple. The first investigation focuses on issues including whether Apple is using its dominant position in the market to stifle competition using its music and book streaming services. The second investigation focuses on Apple Pay, which allows payment by Apple devices to brick and mortar vendors. Apple limits the ability of banks and other financial institutions to use the iPhones' near field radio frequency technology.[65][66]

Fines are insufficient to deter anti-competitive practices by high tech giants, according to European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager. Commissioner Vestager explained, "fines are not doing the trick. And fines are not enough because fines are a punishment for illegal behaviour in the past. What is also in our decision is that you have to change for the future. You have to stop what you're doing."[67]

In September 2021, the United States and European Union began discussions of a joint approach to Big Tech regulation.[68]

OppositionEdit

Scott Galloway has criticized the companies for "avoid[ing] taxes, invad[ing] privacy, and destroy[ing] jobs",[69] while Smyrnaios has described the group as an oligopoly, coming to dominate the online market through anti-competitive practices, ever-increasing financial power, and intellectual property law.[31] He has argued that the current situation is the result of economic deregulation, globalization, and the failure of politicians to understand and respond to developments in technology.

Smyrnaios recommended developing academic analysis of the political economy of the Internet in order to understand the methods of domination and to criticize these methods in order to encourage opposition to that domination.[31]

Use of externally generated contentEdit

On May 9, 2019, the Parliament of France passed a law intended to force GAFA to pay for related rights (the reuse of substantial amounts of text, photos or videos), to the publishers and news agencies of the original materials. The law is aimed at implementing Article 15 of the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market of the European Union.[70]

Political debatesEdit

Accusations of inaction towards misinformationEdit

Following Russian interference in the 2016 US election, Facebook was criticized for not doing enough to curb misinformation, and accused of downplaying its role in allowing misinformation to spread.[71] Part of the controversy involved the Cambridge Analytica scandal and political data collection.[72] In 2019, a Senate Intelligence Committee report criticized tech giants more generally for not responding strongly enough to misinformation, most Senate Intelligence reports regarding the subject focused on Facebook and Twitter's role.[73] 'Big tech' social media networks improved their response to fake accounts and influence operation trolls, and these initiatives received some praise compared to 2016.[74][75]

In 2020 and 2021, social media giants have been frequently criticized for allowing COVID-19 misinformation to spread.[76][77] According to Representatives Frank Pallone, Mike Doyle, and Jan Schakowsky, "Industry self-regulation has failed. We must begin the work of changing incentives driving social media companies to allow and even promote misinformation and disinformation."[78][79] President Joe Biden criticized Facebook for allowing anti-vaccine propaganda to spread.[80][81] Multiple social media platforms introduced more stringent moderation of health-related misinformation.[82]

Human Rights Watch criticized Big Tech, primarily Facebook, for capturing the information market in developing countries where misinformation would rapidly spread to new internet users. HRW also stated that excessive content removals meant the loss of important information such as the documentation of human rights abuses needed as evidence to serve justice.[83]

Accusations of censorship and election interferenceEdit

The practice of banning of what is known as "hate speech" has also received public criticism as many of the targets tend to be conservatives.[84] In July 2020, United States House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law held a congressional hearing of CEOs of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, where some members of the subcommittee raised concerns about alleged bias against conservatives on social media.[85] U.S. Representative for Florida's 1st congressional district Matt Gaetz suggested that the CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos should "divorce from the SPLC," due to the practice of forbidding donations to organizations which are designated as hate groups by the SPLC.[86]

On November 5, 2020, U. S. President Donald Trump claimed "historic election interference from big money, big media and big tech" and labeled the Democratic Party as "party of the big donors, the big media, the big tech". Conservative paper Washington Times criticized Trump's claim of election fraud as without evidence.[87] On January 6, 2021, during his speech before the crowd of protesters stormed the United States Capitol, Trump accused "Big Tech" of rigging elections and shadow banning conservatives, while promising to hold them accountable and work to "get rid of" Section 230.[88] On January 11, after Trump's Twitter account was suspended, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief spokesman Steffen Seibert noted that Merkel found Twitter's halt of Trump's account "problematic", adding that legislators, not private companies, should decide on any necessary curbs to free expression if speech incites to violence.[89][90]

According to a New York University report in February 2021, conservative claims of social media censorship could be a form of disinformation, and an analysis of available data indicated that the claims that right-wing views were censored were false. Nonetheless, the same report also recommended that social media platforms could be more transparent to assuage concerns of ideological censorship, even if those concerns are overblown.[91][92]

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny criticized tech giants (specifically Apple and Google) for cooperating with a Russian government order to ban the Smart Voting app.[93]

Censorship against tech giantsEdit

The largest tech platforms have faced censorship themselves. Google have been banned in China since 2010, when they decided to leave the country after the Communist Party demanded censorship of search results.[93][94] although an attempt at establishing Google China was made.[94] Facebook and Twitter have been banned in China since 2009.[94] Microsoft's LinkedIn has been blocked in Russia since 2016.[95]

AlternativesEdit

Alt-tech is a group of websites, social media platforms, and Internet service providers that consider themselves alternatives to more mainstream offerings. In the 2020s, some conservatives who were banned from other social media platforms, and their supporters, began to move toward alt-tech platforms.[96][97][98][99]

Top companies globallyEdit

There were also two Chinese technology companies in the top ten most valuable publicly traded companies globally at the end of the 2010s – Alibaba and Tencent. Smyrnaios argued in 2016 that the Asian giant corporations Samsung Electronics, Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent could or should be included in the definition.[31] China's ByteDance has also been considered Big Tech.[100] Together, this has been referred to as "G-MAFIA + BAT",[101] also including IBM. While a dominant presence in the mobile telephony marketplace, Samsung Electronics is presently dependent on the Android ecosystem, in which Google has major influence, hence Samsung is not included in the BAT formulation, though Samsung is based in Korea.

Other big technology companies on a global scale include Samsung Electronics, Intel, IBM, Cisco Systems, and Oracle. Along with Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Tencent they completed the list of top ten technology companies in the world at the end of the 2010s, according to the Forbes Global 2000 list published in 2019, an evaluation based on annual sales, profit, assets, market capitalization, and overall market valuation.[102]

GalleryEdit

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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