When big tech and billionaires start deciding the fate of the world


In the late 1800s, after the American Civil War, a handful of businessmen flourished in the northern United States as industrialization took off. In multiple sectors, including mining, steel and railroads, monopoly corporations – ironically known as “trusts” – controlled more than 70% of the market and, therefore, access to essential services. .

Understandably, the often tall, burly, middle-aged men at the head of these monopolies often bent the law. Railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt was among the most notorious. Defying the government on one occasion, he quipped, “What do I care about the law? Don’t I have the power?

By the end of the 1800s, opinion had soured considerably against the old monopolists, whom the public sadly referred to as “Robber Barons”. When Woodrow Wilson became president, he was a firm believer in the need for anti-trust legislation to hold the country together. “If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States,” he said, “they will own it.”

It’s now been over a century since Wilson’s anti-trust laws, and yet the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. The defining attribute of today’s world is that billionaires – and especially tech barons – are often capable of sending countries to war, empowering autocrats, silencing dissidents and cause you to hate your neighbor.

Take a look at what the richest man in the world, Elon Musk, has been up to lately, for example. I’ve long been nervous about Twitter’s efforts to sell itself to Musk, because handing the world’s most powerful propaganda platform to the world’s richest man instinctively seems like a terrible idea.

It’s not exactly about Musk, though; I don’t think I would want even Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa to run Twitter with carte blanche. But maybe it’s at least a bit about Musk. Even before kicking off the Twitter deal (then pulling out, then rejoining it), Musk was infamous for supporting the most maniacal voices on the internet. He is prone to bringing back Donald Trump, Kanye West and anti-Semitism. His radical concept of “free speech” envisions empowering the bloodthirsty hatemongers who are already a staple of social media.

But look no further than war-torn Ukraine for the chilling implications of Musk’s market power. Amid fire and brimstone — and interrupted internet access — Ukraine’s resistance forces have relied heavily on Musk’s network of more than 2,000 satellites for basic communications. But after tweeting out a controversial peace plan meant to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, Musk hinted he would stop sponsoring Starlink, as the satellite network is known.

Later, Musk brushed off that threat with a furious “to hell with it,” but the morale-crushing damage had already been done. In Ukraine, desperate resistance fighters realized their fate was in the hands of one man – and it wasn’t Putin.

Musk is not alone, of course, in the power he wields. In most countries, transferring power from private companies to government is no better than living under monopolies. Facebook, for example, has been accused of handing over control of online speech to ruling parties and autocrats, in exchange for market access.

The problem is that, by its very nature, technology tends to gravitate towards existing monopolies, because no one wants to join new platforms that have few users. You are on Twitter, after all, only because everyone is there. The key to a safer world therefore lies in a certain decentralization of this market power.


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