EditorialTech regulation

Frogs facing snakes

Antitrust authorities and regulators are vehemently targeting established tech companies, while new AI providers are gearing up for the next disruption – meanwhile Germany is still in love with the fax machine.

Frogs facing snakes

The digital industry is always up for superlatives. According to those involved, this week's proceedings in Washington, D.C. mark the largest antitrust case in 25 years: A U.S. district court is deliberating allegations that Google is abusing its market power. One of the arguments put forth by the U.S. Department of Justice is that the search engine giant pays device manufacturers like Apple and telecom companies like AT&T billions to make Google the default search engine. The precedents for such proceedings harken back to the cases against AT&T in 1974 and Microsoft in 1988, which had profound consequences for those companies. AT&T was broken up, and Microsoft had to separate the Internet Explorer from its Windows operating system. Now, the perception is that Google may also face stringent regulatory interventions.

This creates the comforting impression for many digital skeptics that politics, justice, and regulatory authorities are finally closing in on the intimidating data giant. After all, hasn't the EU Commission, with the Digital Markets Act, laid the groundwork this side of the Atlantic to rein in Alphabet, Meta, and similar companies on a tighter leash?

To avoid any misunderstandings: there are numerous reasons to question the market power of digital conglomerates, to regulate their business models, and to address the dysfunctionality of many market segments. The fact that a single billionaire like Elon Musk can take a social network (formerly known as Twitter) and its myriads of users hostage for his libertarian agenda is evidence enough that the regulatory framework and the actual influence of these companies are in stark disproportion.

However, an honest assessment requires acknowledging that the high-profile confrontations with tech heavyweights can quickly divert attention from the fact that there is even more pressing need for action elsewhere – both in front and behind the curve.

The next wave of disruption has long been rolling toward business and society – in the form of artificial intelligence and, until recently, unknown companies like OpenAI. To their own astonishment, Google, Meta and Microsoft found themselves relegated to the backseat in the surging hype surrounding self-learning digital answer generating machines. And their first clumsy and surprisingly error-prone attempts to outpace the newcomer ChatGPT with their own AI bots showed one thing above all: even the digital dominators are not unassailable. The impression is solidifying that Washington and Brussels are busily regulating way behind this development. That is the perspective ahead of the curve, the reality check with the innovation status of the tech pioneers.

And then there's the perspective from Germany, in other words, behind the curve. The situation report from the German Federal Ministry of Economics comes to a devastating conclusion: "The digitalization momentum of the Corona pandemic has not yet led to comprehensive and sustainable digitalization in the German economy," it soberly states.

Need an example? According to a study by the Digital Association Bitkom, 82% of companies still use fax machines today, with 40% using them intensively. It may seem like a minor phenomenon, but it's symptomatic. This has nothing to do with Google. In many places, the business and administration sectors are far from even coming into contact with the market power of tech giants.

Skepticism towards powerful corporations should not serve as an argument for an outright rejection of digitalization. Demonizing allegoric data giants is not a reason to avoid making user-friendly improvements to archaic administrative processes. On the contrary, what is needed is a conscious and informed effort to use digital technologies for creating value. After all, that kind of hightech will enter the market anyway. So, let's prepare ourselves.