Should major search engines and social media sites be nationalised?

Posted on September 4, 2017

 

As time moves on, our definition of what constitutes ‘essential’ services changes. For thousands of years, man lived without such luxuries as electricity, drinking water supplied to their homes, fuel-powered transport and adequate healthcare. Gradually, these services have become ones we class as necessities, and are therefore always hot topics for whether they should be under private or state ownership.

In the last 20 years, the main introduction to our lives that’s now seen as a must-have is the internet. The Office for National Statistics reports that 89% of us are ‘recent internet users’, and in 2015, the then US President Barack Obama claimed the internet was “not a luxury, it is a necessity.”

With attitudes towards the internet rapidly changing from it being something of a novelty to a tool we cannot live without, it’s perhaps inevitable that questions are sometimes asked about whether some or all of it should come out of private hands and instead become state owned and taxpayer funded. Last week, an article published by The Guardian argued in favour of this.

Aside from the argument that it makes valuable services available to everyone, proponents of nationalisation often contend that it prevents monopolies and ensures services are run more in accordance with public interest. It’s this point that the article writer Nick Srnicek primarily makes, arguing that the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon have little in the way of competition and they have become too big to operate in the interests of their users. Srnicek draws attention to Facebook gobbling up rival services like Instagram and WhatsApp with the vast wealth it has at its disposal, and the potential for Amazon’s involvement in the grocery sector to lead to price wars.

An argument not made by Srnicek but pointed out by some readers in the comments section is the controversial amounts of tax paid by major digital firms like Google and Facebook, the latter of which made headlines by paying a meagre £4,327 in corporation tax in 2014. It could be argued that a state-owned alternative would be able to give more while taking less.

However, nationalising Facebook or any other internet service would not be without its flaws, as Forbes robustly pointed out in 2012. Of the 10 arguments the article puts forward, perhaps the most significant is the rapidly evolving state of social media and the wider internet. What if somebody had thought to nationalise Myspace or Friends Reunited when they were at their peak? Who’s to say that in 10 or 15 years’ time, something won’t have replaced Facebook, leaving us with a state-owned, taxpayer-funded dead duck?

Maybe plans to nationalise the biggest tech sites can be filed alongside ones to make the internet free – a nice idea, but not one that can realistically be implemented in the foreseeable future.

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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