The Sherman Anti-trust Act returns from the dead. Cartoon in Minneapolis Journal, 1904, by Bartholomew.
Facebook is no longer just the target of irate users and ex-users. German officials are now targeting the company for allegedly stealing and storing personal information about people not registered on their site.
Nor does it end with Facebook. A few days ago France declared Google a monopoly. The search engine juggernaut revealed wi-fi data from its mapping program to French, German and Spanish officials concerned about the power of its surveillance network. Italy, after convicting three Google executives of privacy violations last year, has turned to attack the company's advertising program.
In some ways this fight is new, and in other ways very, very old, as the above cartoon shows. Things usually unfold like this.
1. Companies emerge in a new field, claiming to a hold to a higher sense of ethics and represent a sexier form of entrepreneurialism than their stodgy forebears.
2. Said companies get stunningly fucking rich and therefore powerful.
3. As the new industry's power grows, it infiltrates and conflicts with existing centers of power, including the official ones the society has in place for its own administration. This would be the government, or at least various factions of it. Tension arises, especially if economic upheaval hits.
4. As said companies become more powerful, they stomp some toes, both in government and the larger society. In doing so, they often betray their founding ideals, because ideals really aren't what companies are made for, especially not in the long run.
5. In reaction to said stomped toes, politicians and government bite back, as we're now seeing in Europe (and probably elsewhere soon). Often, the governmental efforts have some backing from segments of the public, who perceive the companies as now exercising too much power and want them curbed back.
6. Usually, through the companies getting their hands smacked and public backlash, the once-titans recede to collapsing or becoming merely a power.
In this case, the global economic upheavals combined with the perceived intrusion on people's privacy and the need of governments to preserve their own power in a chaotic time form a perfect storm for this sort of social combat. I expect a lot more of it in the years to come. I expect this to be a big political battle for most industrialized countries for the next decade or so.
Today's corporate titans, especially the new ones, would do well to keep in mind that this has happened before. Railroad companies once owned a quarter of the United States, auto makers once seemed invincible, all the trusts highlighted above did too.
Every one of them faded. There are other powers in the world besides profits.