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Big Tech faces an antitrust and regulatory reckoning in 2022

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

Predictions for the year ahead: Antitrust and regulatory agencies in the US will start the takedown of Facebook, Google, and maybe Apple and Amazon.

In a year of yet more major privacy and data breach scandals, it was easy to miss a significant legal action at the end of November in London.

With Boris the Buffoon hogging headlines, many people didn’t spot that the UK competition watchdog ordered Facebook to sell Giphy, the GIF-making website it bought for $400-million.

Giphy, for those over 25, is where tens of millions of people find or create animated GIFs to send in as many texts.

The Competition and Markets Authority found that to “protect millions of social media users” and prevent Facebook from “increasing its significant power in social media” it had to sell its acquisition, even though it had little revenue in the UK.

“By requiring Facebook to sell Giphy, we are protecting millions of social media users and promoting competition and innovation in digital advertising,” said Stuart McIntosh, who chairs the independent inquiry group that investigated the deal for the watchdog.

“Without action, it will also allow Facebook to increase its significant market power in social media even further, through controlling competitors’ access to Giphy GIFs.”

This is the first of many more such aggressive moves by regulators against the previously unchecked power of the Silicon Valley tech giants.

It took a while for the shock of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which manipulated the 2016 Brexit and US presidential elections, to sink in, and a change in US presidents to bring about the much-anticipated reckoning that Big Tech now faces.

Powerful new figures in the Biden administration with serious competition law credentials are now in key roles, especially Lina Khan, who is the chair of the Federal Trade Commission.

There are already numerous court cases on the go against the so-called Faang companies – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. These firms have an unassailable monopoly in their respective fields (including video through YouTube for Google’s parent company Alphabet).

Meanwhile, while the US tries to rein in its wayward tech firms, China has already done that – with incredible heavy-handedness. Tencent, Alibaba and others can confirm that when the Chinese Communist Party changes its mind about the free pass it gave its tech industry, it can cost you.

China’s lead in technology is likely to start bearing fruit in 2022, although it’s uncertain how significant this will be.

Former #Presidunce Donald Trump shot America’s tech industry in the foot with his ill-considered series of bans on working with Chinese firms. Add to that the Covid-19 impact on computer chip manufacturing and every country is acutely aware of the problems that come with fiddling with a global supply chain. No thanks either to the massive Ever Given, which demonstrated the fragility of good old-fashioned shipping when it blocked the Suez Canal for a week.

The memes that popped up about the lone digger trying to get the giant ship unstuck captured the zeitgeist of a weary world. My favourite was the one captioned: “The crushing despair of everything from the past year,” with the lone earth mover titled “You, doing your best.” That sums up the year alone, doesn’t it?

Personally, I am most excited about the surge of electric vehicles (EVs) in the market, and in South Africa, this year. I have been driving the BMW iX for a few weeks, and first impressions are a winner.

As the dynamics of supply and demand begin to take effect, the cost of the cars should come down. Interestingly, as the charging infrastructure gets better and more widespread, the size of the EVs’ batteries is likely to decrease. The battery is the most expensive component of the system and is currently the size it is to compensate for a lack of charging stations. More of those means smaller batteries and cheaper cars, says the conventional economic logic.

My other personal tech passion is foldable screens. This year’s Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 and Flip3 are brilliant devices that show amazing hardware engineering.

I’m a fan particularly of the Fold3, which has a “regular” 6.2-inch screen but opens up to 7.6 inches.

I have no social media apps on my smartphone, bar Twitter, so I use it primarily for reading or watching video. To flip open the Fold and use its larger screen for reading and watching video is a total winner for me.

But by far the biggest trend for 2022 is the long-awaited big reckoning for Big Tech – and it’s not going to be pretty for the social media and tech giants. But they deserve what’s coming. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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