Apple has been fined €1.8bn by the European Commission for breaking competition laws over music streaming. The EU Competition Commissioner said that Apple had restricted “developers from informing consumers about alternative, cheaper music services available outside of the Apple ecosystem.”

Although Apple says it will appeal, the judgment seems part of the budding effort by some governments to address the huge power of the tech giants such as the parent companies of Google and Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and – rising rapidly due to its involvement in AI – Nvidia.

The EU’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act are perhaps the most comprehensive to date in providing a legal framework to protect users, protect fundamental rights, and ensure fair use. The US has strengthened antitrust enforcement in the digital technology arena, which has rare bipartisan support.

Timothy Wu, in The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires published in 2012, charted a cycle of invention, growth, concentration, regulation, and competition over communication technologies such as telephone, radio, and the internet.

“History shows a typical progression of information technologies,” he writes, “from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel — from open to closed system.”

An experimental and open technology will inevitably become more concentrated, he argues, because all forms of communication require a network of users. And when more people join one network, the people they are connected to want to join as well. And the larger the network, the more opportunity for profit.

Communication companies then try to grow larger and larger, buying up smaller entities, until they become monopolies that set the financial terms and control the message.

With the internet and digital communication technology, the potential of the profit – and control – is even more obvious as it brings all print, radio, television, photograph, and telephone into one essential platform.

History, though, has also shown that while sometimes governments allow companies to grow bigger, they are also the one entity that decides when big is too big and can wield the power to break up a corporation. The speed of the digital transformation has meant the financial size of Big Tech companies is greater than most countries, so the US and EU regulatory actions are important first steps in starting to draw the line on the concentration of wealth and control. 

Consumers and rights advocates are essential actors in holding both companies and governments to account. From the products we buy and use to the votes we cast and the campaigns we engage in, we all have to speak and act for equality, equity, transparency, participation, and accountability.

It is far too early to tell for sure, but between the recent regulations and consumer advocacy, we may be at the beginning of a turning point for Big Tech.

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