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Competition in the digital age

数字时代的竞争

How to tame the tech titans

如何驯服科技巨头

The dominance of Google, Facebook and Amazon is bad for consumers and competition

谷歌、脸书、亚马逊的主导地位对消费者和竞争来说不是好事



NOT long ago, being the boss of a big Western tech firm was a dream job. As the billions rolled in, so did the plaudits: Google, Facebook, Amazon and others were making the world a better place. Today these companies are accused of being BAADD—big, anti-competitive, addictive and destructive to democracy. Regulators fine them, politicians grill them and one-time backers warn of their power to cause harm.

不久前,在西方大型科技公司担任总裁是梦想的职业。这些公司吸引了亿万美元资金,同时赢得了喝彩:谷歌、脸书、亚马逊等公司使世界变得更加美好,而如今被批评为BAADD:规模大、反竞争、使人上瘾、破坏民主。监管部门对它们处以罚款,政客对他们进行盘问,曾经的支持者警告它们的力量会产生危害。

Much of this techlash is misguided. The presumption that big businesses must necessarily be wicked is plain wrong. Apple is to be admired as the world’s most valuable listed company for the simple reason that it makes things people want to buy, even while facing fierce competition. Many online services would be worse if their providers were smaller. Evidence for the lix between smartphones and unhappiness is weak. Fake news is not only an online phenomenon.

这波“科技抵制”浪潮在很大程度上是错误的。大企业必然是邪恶的,这种臆断显然是错误的。世界最有价值的上市公司苹果值得钦佩,原因很简单:它在激烈竞争中生产出消费者所喜爱的产品。假如产品供应商的规模小,许多在线服务会变得糟糕。尚无充分证据表明智能手机与不幸福之间存在联系,假新闻并非网络所独有。

But big tech platforms, particularly Facebook, Google and Amazon, do indeed raise a worry about fair competition. That is partly because they often benefit from legal exemptions. Unlike publishers, Facebook and Google are rarely held responsible for what users do on them; and for years most American buyers on Amazon did not pay sales tax. Nor do the titans simply compete in a market. Increasingly, they are the market itself, providing the infrastructure (or “platforms”) for much of the digital economy. Many of their services appear to be free, but users “pay” for them by giving away their data. Powerful though they already are, their huge stockmarket valuations suggest that investors are counting on them to double or even triple in size in the next decade.

然而,大型科技平台的确使人们对公平竞争感到担忧,尤其是脸书、谷歌、亚马逊。一个原因是它们时常从法律免责中获益。与出版商不同的是,脸书、谷歌很少为用户在平台上的行为负责,多年来亚马逊买家从不支付销售税。巨头不只是参与市场竞争,而且逐渐演变为市场,为大部分数字经济提供基础设施(或“平台”)。许多服务看似免费,但用户以泄漏个人数据为“代价”。巨头已足够强大,但巨额市值表明投资者期待它们的规模在未来十年达到现有的2-3倍。

There is thus a justified fear that the tech titans will use their power to protect and extend their dominance, to the detriment of consumers (see article). The tricky task for policymakers is to restrain them without unduly stifling innovation.

所以人们有理由担心,科技巨头将利用强大的力量来保护和强化主导地位,使消费者受到损害。决策者感到棘手的是既要约束它们,又不能过度遏制创新。

The less severe contest

不太严酷的考验

The platforms have become so dominant because they benefit from “network effects”. Size begets size: the more sellers Amazon, say, can attract, the more buyers will shop there, which attracts more sellers, and so on. By some estimates, Amazon captures over 40% of online shopping in America. With more than 2bn monthly users, Facebook holds sway over the media industry. Firms cannot do without Google, which in some countries processes more than 90% of web searches. Facebook and Google control two-thirds of America’s online ad revenues.

这些平台有这样的主导地位,原因是从“网络效应”中获益。规模产生规模:按照亚马逊的说法,吸引的卖家越多,前来购物的买家就越多,继续吸引更多的卖家,循环不息。据估计亚马逊在美国占有40%以上的网购份额。脸书的月度活跃用户超过20亿,在传媒业中占有举足轻重的地位。企业离不开谷歌,有些国家超过90%的网页搜索由谷歌处理。脸书和谷歌控制着美国三分之二的网络广告收入。

America’s trustbusters have given tech giants the benefit of the doubt. They look for consumer harm, which is hard to establish when prices are falling and services are “free”. The firms themselves stress that a giant-killing startup is just a click away and that they could be toppled by a new technology, such as the blockchain. Before Google and Facebook, Alta Vista and MySpace were the bee’s knees. Who remembers them?

美国反垄断官员使科技巨头获得“疑点利益”。他们调查消费者利益受损,而如果价格下跌、提供“免费”服务,指控就难以成立。企业强调以弱胜强的创业公司比比皆是,它们依靠某项新科技就可能打败巨头,例如区块链。在谷歌和脸书之前,Alta Vista和MySpace是业内佼佼者,现在谁还记得它们?

However, the barriers to entry are rising. Facebook not only owns the world’s largest pool of personal data, but also its biggest “social graph”—the list of its members and how they are connected. Amazon has more pricing information than any other firm. Voice assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, will give them even more control over how people experience the internet. China’s tech firms have the heft to compete, but are not about to get unfettered access to Western consumers.

然而,市场的进入壁垒正在提高。脸书不仅拥有世界最大的个人数据库,也掌握着最大的“社交图谱”,即用户名单及其相互关系。亚马逊掌握的定价信息比任何一家公司都多。它们利用语音助理进一步控制人们的网络体验,例如:亚马逊Alexa和谷歌Assistant。中国的科技企业有实力参与竞争,但不打算无拘无束的赢得西方消费者。

If this trend runs its course, consumers will suffer as the tech industry becomes less vibrant. Less money will go into startups, most good ideas will be bought up by the titans and, one way or another, the profits will be captured by the giants.

如果这种趋势发展下去,科技产业的活力将会下降,使消费者受损。创业公司获得的资金会减少,巨头买断大部分好的创意,以各种途径抢走利润。

The early signs are already visible. The European Commission has accused Google of using control of Android, its mobile operating system, to give its own apps a leg up. Facebook keeps buying firms which could one day lure users away: first Instagram, then WhatsApp and most recently tbh, an app that lets teenagers send each other compliments anonymously. Although Amazon is still increasing competition in aggregate, as industries from groceries to television can attest, it can also spot rivals and squeeze them from the market.

初步迹象已经显现。欧盟指责谷歌利用安卓移动操作系统偏袒自家应用程序。脸书一直在收购早晚抢走用户的企业:先后收购了Instagram、WhatsApp,以及最近的tbh,青少年使用这款应用匿名赞美对方。亚马逊的整体竞争实力仍在提升,但正如食品杂货和电视领域所看到的,亚马逊也会遭遇竞争对手,并将它们挤出市场。

The rivalry remedy

对抗疗法

What to do? In the past, societies have tackled monopolies either by breaking them up, as with Standard Oil in 1911, or by regulating them as a public utility, as with AT&T in 1913. Today both those approaches have big drawbacks. The traditional tools of utilities regulation, such as price controls and profit caps, are hard to apply, since most products are free and would come at a high price in forgone investment and innovation. Likewise, a full-scale break-up would cripple the platforms’ economies of scale, worsening the service they offer consumers. And even then, in all likelihood one of the Googlettes or Facebabies would eventually sweep all before it as the inexorable logic of network effects reasserted itself.

怎么破?以往解决垄断的方式是分拆,例如1911年的标准石油公司;或把它们当作公用事业来监管,例如1913年的美国电话电报公司。如今两种方式都有很大缺陷,监管公用事业的传统工具已经很难派上用场,例如:价格管制、制定利润上限,因为现在大部分产品是免费的,停止投资和创新会付出巨大代价。同样地,完全分拆会削弱平台的规模经济,使它们提供的消费服务变得糟糕。而且就算分拆,下一个谷歌或脸书可能早就所向披靡,因为残酷的“网络效应”逻辑会再次发挥作用。

The lack of a simple solution deprives politicians of easy slogans, but does not leave trustbusters impotent. Two broad changes of thinking would go a long way towards sensibly taming the titans. The first is to make better use of existing competition law. Trustbusters should scrutinise mergers to gauge whether a deal is likely to neutralise a potential long-term threat, even if the target is small at the time. Such scrutiny might have prevented Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and Google’s of Waze, which makes navigation software. To ensure that the platforms do not favour their own products, oversight groups could be set up to deliberate on complaints from rivals—a bit like the independent “technical committee” created by the antitrust case against Microsoft in 2001. Immunity to content liability must go, too.

由于缺少简单的解决方案,政客提不出简单口号,但反垄断官员并非无能为力。为了明智地驯服巨头,两大理念转变有很长的路要走。首先,利用好现行的竞争法规,反垄断官员应当审查并购,权衡这些交易能否抵消长期隐患,即使收购目标很小。这种审查能阻止脸书收购Instagram,谷歌收购Waze(研发导航软件)。为确保平台不偏袒自家产品,可设立监督组织审议竞争对手的投诉,有点像2001年微软反垄断案设立的独立“技术委员会”。平台对内容免责的弊端必须得到解决。

Second, trustbusters need to think afresh about how tech markets work. A central insight, one increasingly discussed among economists and regulators, is that personal data are the currency in which customers actually buy services. Through that prism, the tech titans receive valuable information—on their users’ behaviour, friends and purchasing habits—in return for their products. Just as America drew up sophisticated rules about intellectual property in the 19th century, so it needs a new set of laws to govern the ownership and exchange of data, with the aim of giving solid rights to individuals.

其次,反垄断官员要重新思考科技市场的运行规律。经济学家和监管部门讨论越来越多的一个关键点是,个人数据是消费者购买服务所支付的货币。由此可见,科技巨头用产品换取有价值的信息,包括用户的行为、朋友、购物习惯。正如19世纪美国制定了复杂的知识产权法,如今需要新的法规来管理数据的交换和所有权,旨在赋予个人实质性权利。

In essence this means giving people more control over their information. If a user so desires, key data should be made available in real time to other firms—as banks in Europe are now required to do with customers’ account information. Regulators could oblige platform firms to make anonymised bulk data available to competitors, in return for a fee, a bit like the compulsory licensing of a patent. Such data-sharing requirements could be calibrated to firms’ size: the bigger platforms are, the more they have to share. These mechanisms would turn data from something titans hoard, to suppress competition, into something users share, to foster innovation.

实质上,这意味着人们对自己的信息有更大控制权。如果用户提出这种要求,企业应向其他公司提供实时的关键数据,目前欧洲银行被要求这样处理账户信息。监管部门可强制要求平台公司向竞争对手提供海量的匿名数据,并收取一定费用,有点类似专利的强制许可。这种数据共享可根据公司规模进行调整:平台越大,共享的数据越多。这些机制避免巨头囤积数据来遏制竞争,而是让用户共享数据来促进创新。

None of this will be simple, but it would tame the titans without wrecking the gains they have brought. Users would find it easier to switch between services. Upstart competitors would have access to some of the data that larger firms hold and thus be better equipped to grow to maturity without being gobbled up. And shareholders could no longer assume monopoly profits for decades to come.

这一切不会轻而易举,但能驯服巨头,而不破坏它们带来的益处。用户会发现更容易切换各家提供的服务,创业公司能获取大企业掌握的部分数据,从而更好的发展而不被吞并。未来几十年,股东无法再获得垄断利润。