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Articles: We're Still in Charge... For Now

When you look at the human landscape that makes up the United States and analyze who is “in charge,” you might of course start with the government. Since our founding fathers had the wisdom to set up three branches to avoid any one entity assuming complete control, and also worked in a separation of church and state to avoid religion taking on power, it’s clear that our government has a limited ability to be in charge. And that’s a good thing.

Next you can go to the ultra-wealthy, or more publicly, the very largest corporations. Those large and powerful entities are constantly competing for more-more-more within every marketplace they touch. Today, that battle is being waged for the right to ultimately control everything you buy or look at on the internet.

Since technology is impacting so many of our lives in so many different ways, and in fact could be said to be dominating a lot of it, the battle for technology power is one that bears scrutiny. Indeed, the biggest and best-known players in this battle: Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft, each would absolutely love to be in complete control of as many aspects of the internet as possible.

Right now, ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is allowing companies like Amazon and Google to secure new domain extensions, meaning that instead of just “.com” on the end of most addresses, you’ll have “.shop” or “.book” and so on to contend with.

Since the heavyweights are jostling for these –Amazon and Google both want many of the same domain extensions– the money is huge, and well beyond mere mortals.

It is a bit disturbing that by attempting to broaden the reach of the internet beyond “.com,” ICANN is playing directly into the hands of those companies that already control a great deal of it. Think about shopping today... the majority of searches made for products are made within Google, and the majority of results include Amazon at the top of the list. Together, they already dominate the landscape of internet shopping. That’s a lot of power.

Over one hundred years ago we collectively learned that large corporations will constantly angle to grab as much power and market share as they can, and so we instituted rules against monopolies. Which doesn’t mean that the attempts still aren’t made, or that corporations don’t step right up to the line, and maybe inch past it, hoping to avoid the evil eye of the Justice Department.

I’m not sure dominance of the web is going to ever be an easy thing to define, but we’re certainly seeing the same thing we always have with large corporations. The internet has just given them a new playground in which to do it.

However, unlike something like railroads or oil or steel, this fight for dominance more directly involves the consumer... you and I. And when it all comes down to it, the collective “us” are really the ones who have the power. If everyone decided to stop using Google or shopping at Amazon they would simply go away. And isn’t what ultimate power is: the ability to decide whether you live or die?

As an aside, we’re seeing Google morph from a company with a motto of “Don’t Be Evil” into a company that demands resellers hand over customers’ email addresses and more in order to qualify for a “Google Trusted Store” badge. Well, to hell with that as far as we’re concerned. We’d never hand out our customers’ information like that. Jeeminy, the other entity easily envisioned demanding that same kind of information for their own purposes is Nazi Germany. Don’t be Evil indeed. Our refusal will cost us that badge. I can only hope more people learn about this, because now, if I see that badge, I’m actually going to be turned off from that reseller, because I will then know that reseller doesn’t protect and cherish my information like I expect.

Google’s transformation proves that the idea of not being evil cannot survive the machinations of a big corporation, because the only thing that moves them forward is to make more profit than they did last quarter.

Collectively, I don’t think the public has the smarts to corral and use the ultimate power we have. But I think we should each consider doing our part. Personally, I like competition. I like smaller companies. I like seeing the innovation and dexterity and humanity of those more nimble companies. I want to see more of them, and by extension, see more of my fellow Americans going to work, and more of them happily working in smaller companies because most people are actually happier working for smaller companies, rather than being a “number” in a huge corporation.

Maybe you feel differently, and you’d just as soon have only one choice for anything you do or buy. Maybe you want only Google to tell you where everything is, and only ever buy at Amazon, and have one other dominant entity tell you where to go on vacation. If that’s the case, just keep clicking on the top results from Google and buying from Amazon, and that’ll eventually happen.

But as Google is so clearly proving, what companies believe in and what they do when they’re on the way up to becomes much different than what they do once they’ve achieved dominance. We’re seeing that in both Microsoft and Apple today. Microsoft is clearly behaving differently now that they’re behind the eight ball. And Apple is no longer the lovable underdog they used to be.

There may come a time when a corporation becomes so dominant that consumers lose the power they currently have. While that time hasn’t quite arrived yet, it is knocking on the door. Just as we can no more dictate where the steel came from in a product we buy, we may lose our ability to dictate how we shop and find information on the internet.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn ya...

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