The era of tech monopolies
It’s that time of the year and the decade. The top 10 lists of everything in the year 2019, and the decade of 2010s, have been announced. In the world of mobile phone apps, it turns out, the four most downloaded apps of the 2010s are owned by Facebook. The past decade has been an app-everything decade. From ride sharing to grocery shopping, and travel stays to dating, almost every aspect of life had an app to support it. In such an environment, Facebook appears to have easily outrun the rest. Given the reach of Facebook’s apps into our daily lives, this is a good time to think about ways of reducing the influence of monopolies such as Facebook.
According to a report put together by the analytics and mobile market data firm App Annie, the top five apps in terms of most downloads in the world were (starting from the most downloaded) Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat. The first (and top) four of these are now owned by Facebook. Facebook also put in a spirited bid to acquire Snapchat, but hasn’t yet managed to bag that one. The next five are Skype, Tiktok, UC Browser, YouTube, and Twitter. The second half of the list shows the increasing dominance of Chinese firms in the app market. Both TikTok (owned by ByteDance) and UC Browser (owned by the Alibaba Group) are headquartered in China. Google (that owns YouTube), Microsoft (that owns Skype) and Twitter are the rest of the competitors at the top.
Given the amount of bad press that Facebook has received in the past few years — the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the evident disregard for user privacy, the amplification of misinformation and fake news, even the promotion of violence in countries such as Myanmar — the popularity of Facebook-owned apps is surprising. And all this while it continues to be banned in the world’s most populous nation — China. While the company has run into legal trouble in Europe after the introduction of a strict data protection regime, and is currently under investigation over antitrust allegations in the United States, its persistent dominance in the app universe has risks. Others such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple have also managed to create monopolies within different markets. This sort of monopoly and the resulting concentration of manipulable user data within big tech companies must sound alarm bells in the minds of users and governments.