The Google & Facebook Monopoly

Our Director of Tech and Innovation, Dino Burbidge shares his views. First published in  The Telegraph

Google and Facebook should face investigation by the UK competition watchdog claim researchers

Google and Facebook should face investigation by the UK competitions watchdog for using consumers data to consolidate their grips on their markets and limit the prospect for consumer choice, researchers have found.

According to recent report on consumer data by Which?, the media giants have substantial market power on some of the most important data-dependent services that many consumers view as essential to their daily lives.

Both Google and Facebook dominate their markets with many observers giving the two giants a ‘utility’ status but “now the battle has really begun” in challenging their monopoly.

Consumers spend a lot of their time on Facebook and Google and this allows them to collect masses of data. Which? are concerned that they could use that data to strengthen their position and stop the development of viable alternatives.

Which? said: “Our research finds that many people feel they have little choice but to accept their practices, particularly because they did not think they could take effective action without disconnecting from technology.”

Which? research found that consumers need Google and Facebook and they cannot use them without accepting data terms and conditions. This means that they do not have choice in who they go to for services.

Earlier this year Facebook asked UK users to review and consent to new terms and conditions for the first time in three years. If users did not consent they were told they could not use Facebook and either had to accept the terms or delete their account.

Which? said: “Consumers are signing away far more data than they would do if their consent was freely given. There are few practical alternative options to a service, the only way they can object to unreasonable terms and conditions is by option out.

“Some allege that people are being manipulated into excessive consumption of media, which is said to be achieved by the combination of the companies data and targeting assets with an almost endless supply of niche content.”

The second issue shows how data makes the vertical integration of Google and Facebook distinct to many other examples of companies selling advertising.

There is an increased reliance on individual-level data to achieve and consolidate the reach of Google and Facebook. Advertisers are increasingly buying ‘people’ instead of placements. The ability for Google and Facebook to access such a wide range of data weakens the position of other media outlets.

Dino Burbidge, Director of Innovation and Technology at WCRS, said: “There are two things at play here. Firstly, Facebook and Google are using what you do on their own sites to either subtly tweak what content you see and more importantly, they have a special way to track what you do when you’re away from their sites. The vast majority of people don’t understand how they do this and assume is some form of creepy, covert tracking or worse, don’t assume anything at all.

“The Which? findings aren’t a surprise. It’s just how Facebook and Google work, but up until recently, only nerds and advertising types knew how it actually happened. It’s no coincidence that most web developers I know use online ad blockers that also block the Facebook data requests.

“What is remarkable is the speed at which the public have started to question where their data is going. It always takes us (and legislation) a while to catch up with the latest innovations and the online digital world is no exception. Put it this way, the last time we had a decent go at regulation was in 1998 with the Data protection Act. Google wasn’t even a thing at the beginning of 1998. Facebook wouldn’t turn up for another 6 years. Essentially, the internet has been enjoying 20 years of almost unchallenged freedom and now it’s having its wings clipped.

“We’ve all become less besotted by tech for tech’s sake and are now asking “what will this piece of tech do for me?”. We should be extending that questioning spirit to terms and conditions too. They are often where we agree to be a willing accomplice in our own data leakage. After the new GDPR legislation, I feel honest and succinct terms and conditions need to be the next focus.

“Now the battle has really begun. While ad blockers have been around for a while and some also block the cookies that Facebook and Google use to track you, the real progress is one step higher up the chain, the mobile browser itself. Apple have just announced their Safari web browser will actively ask if you want Facebook to track you. If you say no… that’s it, no more Facebook data leaks from your web browsing activity.”