At the World Economic forum in Davos last January, billionaire investor, George Soros criticised what he called ‘tech monopolies,’ such as Google and Facebook, saying they were a threat to democracy and warning that social media platforms were “obstacles to innovation,” and raising concerns about their power to shape people’s attentions.
Soros reserved his strongest criticism for what he called the “unprecedented and transformative” effects of large internet firms. “The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called ‘the freedom of mind’.”
“There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it.”
He cautioned that this would have “far-reaching political consequences”, and had already played a large role in the election of Donald Trump.
He predicted, however, their days were numbered because tax policy and regulation would catch up with them.
Now the head of the BBC, Director General Tony Hall, has warned of the effect of the tech giants on our society.
Hall’s message is that public broadcasting has assumed greater importance as the world’s biggest media companies build their presence in the UK and also seek to merge and consolidate to achieve even greater scale. That environment thrusts the BBC into a “David vs. Goliath” battle, according to Hall.
“The country needs a BBC that helps society understand itself better…that explores our nation’s differences passionately and robustly…that projects British creativity and values globally. These are not the passions of the West Coast giants – why would they be? They are our passions.”
Hall is not alone in his concerns. Last week Jeff Zucker, CNN boss said regulators should be scrutinising those digital behemoths, the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google), as well as traditional media players.
Hall says that the BBC’s priorities in this new world are reaching younger audiences, setting a “gold standard” for news output, promoting new talent and backing home-grown creativity.
“Old business models are being ripped up before our eyes and we can see now, more clearly than ever, that the global media landscape is likely to be dominated by four, perhaps five, businesses on the West Coast of America.”
“These are global businesses determined not just to produce their own content, but to control how it’s distributed and marketed right around the world through their own branded gateways. They are businesses that will skilfully mine every ounce of personal data to drive growth and profit.”
The BBC boss will argue that the role of local content and brands is more important in a landscape dominated by a handful of global players and that “local truly matters.” Amazon and Netflix are increasingly investing in local content, but producers have warned that the tap of co-production money could run dry.
“Today, Netflix and Amazon are available in over half of British homes,” says Hall. “They are services that are admired and trusted. And yet, on average, the great majority of television output viewed in the U.K. each day is still British content, even among younger audiences.”
The new players will not invest in new British talent, Hall warns. “The West Coast Giants will pluck established talent wherever they can find it, but their business isn’t to inspire the next generation of British talent. That is our job – and right now, nobody does it better. It’s why Britain doesn’t need its own Netflix. It already has the BBC.”
Meanwhile, George Soros has repeatedly praised EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, whom he said would be the social media companies’ “nemesis”.