America’s gods and limits of antitrust law

By Samuel Sanya

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Imagine you were God for a minute, right this instant! What would you do first? Would you override the sixty seconds limitation and remain God in perpetuity? Maybe make mayor Pete Buttigieg the first openly gay President?  Give yourself that amazing body you’ve always craved? Perhaps. Honestly, you could do with a makeover. Who doesn't?

The idea of being God may sound incredible, but America has created new gods. Our gods do not talk much, but they listen all the time. They like to eavesdrop every second, despite laws against illegal wiretaps - our gods do it for our own good apparently.

Our gods have concentrated so much knowledge, 2.5 quintillion bytes of knowledge each day, in every discipline which will enable them to play god in perpetuity. But why is knowledge so important?

Knowledge, information, facts, perception, appreciation or cognition, call it what you will, is the foundation of economics, business, and life as we know it. Acquisition of knowledge and its assembly determines power.

Whether you become a university professor, an analyst, an entrepreneur, a CFO or even a CEO will be determined by how well you assemble knowledge. You will have to continue amassing new knowledge to keep collecting paychecks.

At the beginning of this article, I asked about what you would do first as God for sixty seconds. Your answers depend on your state of mind. But suppose you had access to 7 billion minds, simultaneously?

Computer scientists are desperately trying to attempt that through machines; like the chess computers that combine the chess moves of the most brilliant minds to have ever played the game. The result is that computers are now better at chess than human beings.

Knowledge is so precious that it takes years to improve upon. Think about how long it took for Newton, Einstein, and Faraday to come up with new ways to understand physics or for economists like Stigler, Friedman, Keynes or Carl Marx to create stunning theories.

It is knowledge and its unique assembly that creates power. Thus Google, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have become powerful through their ability collate knowledge from over 2 billion human beings; every second, every minute, and every hour.

Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc (an appropriate name for a firm that wants to know all things from a to z), has gone the extra mile to begin the nascent field of “surveillance capitalism”.

Through the control of android technology which is the basis for several computer applications which turn mobile phones into listening devices, devices like Alexa - which is basically a listening bug and personal assistants to gather knowledge from “private” emails; Google knows you better than you know yourself.

We are all addicted to the internet and its little pleasures such as lower prices, and convenience and are volunteering a lot of knowledge to a handful of tech giants. We are unknowingly creating gods. These gods are now disrupting politics, journalism, finance, and the way we relate in society.

The Catholic church has 1.2 billion members and declining; Facebook has about 1.72 billion members and growing. Facebook has such a strong grip on the social networking scene that even Google, another monopoly, failed to enter that market despite its behemoth status.

Such failure by a tech giant should have set off alarms to the existence of entry barriers, but Facebook has somehow avoided regulatory heat, save for the scrutiny due to revelations from the Cambridge Analytica fiasco.

It seems clear that the current laws are not equipped to check the concentration of knowledge. Antitrust law is meant to ensure competitive markets, breaking down barriers to entry and the protection of consumers; but we face a situation where the consumers are handing monopoly powers to a handful of market players and harm is not easy to prove when someone is in love.

Lior Strahivevitz, a University of Chicago Law School professor who writes on privacy law, property theory and consumer contracts pointed out that internet firms are increasingly using dark patterns to nudge people into something they do not want. This is manipulation by America's gods.

In a keynote presentation at the Stigler Center 2019 antitrust and competition conference at the Gleacher Center, Strahivevitz posed an important question. Can the law differentiate between persuasion and manipulation? Not really.

These tech giants have employed the best economists to skirt the limits of existing competition laws and have done so with great success. In fact, one can argue that these firms have been too successful that they have morphed from super firms into de facto governments with their own policy aimed at maintaining a worldwide grip on knowledge.

As more things turn digital, that grip is only going to get tighter. And as the grip gets tighter, the digital industry is shaping the world into a large shopping mall with centralized control where they gather the rents and determine the distribution of resources. Think of it as a one world government with unelected and unaccountable officials.

Despite the efficiencies they create; Google, Facebook, and Amazon should be broken up and not be allowed to play god for the good of democracy and capitalism.