back to article Why the 'feudal' tech monopolies run rings around competition watchdogs

Competition watchdogs need to move faster and consider the bigger picture to deal effectively with transnational tech behemoths like Google, says BT's former chief lawyer. For seven years, Tim Cowen was head of BT's competition and regulatory public policy group, dealing with government threats to the telco monopoly. He's now …

  1. Nick Ryan Silver badge


    Having previously worked in an organisation that was focussed on monopoly, it was a desolotate and disappointing place. Rather than focus on the strengths of the organisation and work to produce better products and services, every staff meeting was a discussion of how competing companies had been edged out of tenders, how the market share was recorded and how, on the occasional loss to a competitor, how the purchaser of a competing product/service would be worked on both directly and indirectly to make sure that they knew their mistake and that our product/service was better. Even when it wasn't.

    It was a soul destroying place, with customer service and the referrals generated through reliability and good service steadily worn down and eroded in favour of a "sell, sell, sell" culture that often sold impossible dreams and systems and services that were nothing short of lies. It didn't matter though, as long as the customer was tied into a contract.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Monopoly

      And that's how the big boys can rope you. They'll ONLY offer their services if you submit specifically to them.

    2. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge

      Re: Monopoly

      I disagree that this is a characteristic of a monopolist; it's simply the characteristic of any dominant company. I spent years dealing with a certain large storage vendor, and every meeting with them was an opportunity for them to slag the competition. Their products slowly became more and more obsolete, and customer happiness was bought with false promises rather than excellent product.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Monopoly

        The ultimate goal of any capitalistic venture is a captive market: one where the customer MUST come to you regularly because you've cornered the market on one or more essentials.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Monopoly

      It's time to split up: Microsoft (Windows, Office, Sharepoint, dotNet, Xbox, WebSearch), Google (WebSearch, Android), Facebook (FB, WhatsApp, Instagram), Oracle (DB, ERP, Java), SAP (ERP, Hybris, Hana), Amazon (Shop, Marketplace, AWS), Alibaba (Ali, Taobao, Tmall), Tencent (QQ, WeChat, Gaming).

      We are sick of these defacto monopoly forces with their bad behaviour.

    4. annodomini2

      I'll just leave this here...

      "The aim of business is not to provide the best service, but the ONLY service!"

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: I'll just leave this here...

        And for some industries, like utilities, there only IS room for one provider (thus utilities are often termed natural monopolies. Otherwise, you end up with a multitude of unsightly utility conduits everywhere, raising NIMBY issues--and because of the physics of how utilities work, you can't just have state control of the conduits--there's no way to separate customers in a single network.

  2. Duncan Macdonald Silver badge

    What a surprise

    Another article recommending action against Google - with Andrew Orlowski as the author.

    I think that Andrew has written more articles against Google than the rest of the Register team put together.

    Might he be a bit biased ?

    1. ArrZarr Silver badge

      Re: What a surprise

      Possibly, but you need to factor in the bias of the reporter on any piece of journalism that you read.

      1. Daggerchild Silver badge

        Re: What a surprise

        I envy your ability to state this, even though it's obvious. Mine all unhappened. There are always omissions, e.g. Location:

        Why did Google come down hard on a competing Location Service provider? Because they were 'cheaper'. By which I mean the data was worse quality, and was leaching the wrong values into collation systems which were then getting blurred/poisoned, which had knock on effects elsewhere.

        Digital fly tipping. User isn't complaining, it's cheaper. Contracted party isn't complaining, they made more money by doing less work. Where's the harm?

    2. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: What a surprise

      Sure, he might be a bit biased, but Google does suck. They suck slightly less than Apple, so I have an Android phone, but it's still not much of a choice.

      1. Stork Silver badge

        Re: What a surprise

        I beg to differ. As far as we know, Apple does not have a business line of data harvesting. Other issues, yes.

    3. LDS Silver badge

      Might he be a bit biased ?

      Or maybe Facebook and Google became actual issues?

      Or you're one of those who think the the only issue is Microsoft?

    4. Grant Fromage

      Re: What a surprise

      The only way not to have bias is to have no knowledge or experience of anything,

      Newborn babies have no bias.

      If you ignore or reweight facts that is inexcusable bias

      What has been established as a fact is that the pseudo friendly megacorps draw you in as mates who will only say hello to you and wave.

      Which is fine for a while until you wake up and say "WTF happened?" Yes you have been been data-raped.

    5. find users who cut cat tail

      Re: What a surprise

      > Might he be a bit biased

      I would classify 70% of his writings as ramblings of a raving lunatic. Depends on the topic a bit. Anyway, even though he often approaches intellectual ’property’ stuff from a starting point somewhere between devil's advocate and absurdly reductionistic, at least he argues his position well enough to make you think and figure out where exactly where he parted with reality. And he does bring up interesting issues, even though you can only roll your eyes reading his conclusions...

      1. KeepCalm

        Re: What a surprise

        "I would classify 70% of his writings as ramblings of a raving lunatic. "

        I disagree. I would say 80%, and more of a raving maniac, than lunatic.

        But, this article is actually quite thoughtful and interesting and has valid points. Personally I would put in the 20% of good articles category.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What a surprise

      > Another article recommending action against Google

      I was wondering how far down I would have to scroll to find the first example of what Mr Cowen calls the "feudal mindset".

      This far exactly.

  3. TDog

    Mpdify the law

    "A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it; and “thief” and “steal” shall be construed accordingly."

    So we can't accuse any large data gatherer of theft when they are copying rather than taking personal information. But we could do a couple of things. We could create a "taking with intent to market" crime, where taking includes copying, or a wider "taking without clear informed consent".

    In some ways the GDPR is approaching this from the other end, where disclosing without authorisation is an offence; but an offence which allowed the alleged offender to be able to provide proof of clear informed consent as a defence against the charge, is more appropriate as it deals with personal data on an individual basis, and that is where the offence lies, against that individual.

    And as for the 'no doubt' claims that clear and informed is subjective and not fair to the collectors of the information, it is amazing how quickly and effectively the 'cookie requirements' clearly informed users of how cookies were used on sites - most certainly not hidden at the bottom of pages of text beneath the broken lamp with the sign warning "Beware of the Leopard".

  4. ma1010 Silver badge

    Monopolies and Oligopolies

    And not only do monopolies buy out small startups, they sometimes also use patent-troll type lawsuits to destroy them if they won't knuckle under to the buyout. The problem is, thanks to mergers, we have fewer and fewer options all the time. When it's not a monopoly, it's an oligopoly. What difference, from the consumer's point of view, is there between AT&T and Comcast? It's like being allowed to choose between getting you throat cut and being beheaded - either way, the outcome won't be good. If you don't like one, switch to the other - ha-ha.

    This is the way of the future, it seems. The only possible remedies I can see would involve legal ones, but since the big corporations pretty much own the government (see Ajit Pai, big telco's sock puppet chairman of the FCC), I don't see much hope there.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Monopolies and Oligopolies

      Take a look at what is happening in Palo Alto near the Facebook campus.

      Long time residents in the area just received notice that their rent will increase by $800.00 a month and are told to pay up or move out.

      " A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment, but pointed to the $20m the company pledged to invest in affordable housing initiatives as part of its local expansion agreement. One of its projects is bringing 1,500 new units to the region – but only 15% would offer below market rate rents."

      1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge

        Re: Monopolies and Oligopolies

        The problem is that the wealthy gentry of Palo Alto and nearby communities don't want new housing built. They don't want the hard problem of becoming an actual city, so you just get endless suburban sprawl with no reasonable density. While the problem may nominally be caused by tech companies, the fault lies squarely with the local governments.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Monopolies and Oligopolies

          No, it's the residents who elect the local officials. It's obvious they want to preserve their gated communities and have the money and/or connections to keep it that way. They can always threaten to move and take their tax dollars with them.

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Monopolies and Oligopolies

      We're firmly in oligopoly land.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Monopolies and Oligopolies

        and your link fits nicely with this one:

        Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy

        The US is dominated by a rich and powerful elite.

        So concludes a recent study by Princeton University Prof Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof Benjamin I Page.

        1. DropBear Silver badge

          Re: Monopolies and Oligopolies

          Every single so-called "democracy" around the world is actually an oligarchy. All assumptions concerning any degree of control people are supposed to nominally be able to exert break down when all actual power is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy AND (politically) powerful (which are in practice inextricably linked) who present a uniformly corrupt range of options to choose from universally based on lies that are immediately forgotten on election day so much so most people never believe any of it even to begin with.

          And the "run yourself for office then and fix things" crowd is delusional to a disturbing degree if they truly believe people get to just decide to get into politics and do it - one does not simply walk into politics, that's not how the world works, mkay? The process is designed to make sure anyone who succeeds doing that is at least as big of a sociopath as those already there (and a personal pet of those already in power, because that's the only way you get pushed forward). As far as we can tell it's working flawlessly, and the only ones who would have the power to change it are the ones with every interest never to do so. We're fucked, full stop.

          1. Charles 9 Silver badge

            Re: Monopolies and Oligopolies

            "And the "run yourself for office then and fix things" crowd is delusional to a disturbing degree if they truly believe people get to just decide to get into politics and do it..."

            Hmm, then explain Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

  5. LDS Silver badge

    AT&T breakup was a failure because made along regional liines

    As if Google was broken in Google US, Google EU, etc.

    You would just get local monopolies.

    You'd need to break the vertical integration - i.e. separating the search business (and its ads space) from the ads business itself. So different ads business could compete for the ads space.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: AT&T breakup was a failure because made along regional liines

      "You'd need to break the vertical integration - i.e. separating the search business (and its ads space) from the ads business itself. So different ads business could compete for the ads space."

      That only helps if the ads business is a significant value creator. It isn't that really, it is that huge hold on "search" and Android that creates the value. Even if Google weren't even allowed to sells ads, the companies that did would need to pay Google, so they'd continue to charge what they wanted.

      1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

        Re: AT&T breakup was a failure because made along regional liines

        >That only helps if the ads business is a significant value creator.

        I hear what you're saying, but it IS -- secondarily.

        Ads are the primary income generator for a lot of what we regard as normal and free and key aspects/parts of democracy.

        Taking over and strangling-for-other-parties that income source is A Bad Thing.

    2. Daggerchild Silver badge

      Re: AT&T breakup was a failure because made along regional liines

      That needs a neutral API that can't be exploited to the detriment of any party, that is never slow.

      Outsourcing an internal organ is not without side-effects, no matter what the organ trader promises.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: AT&T breakup was a failure because made along regional liines


      or that any ISP/SP that has a, or a near, monopoly on infrastructure must wholesale lines to other ISPs/SPs at a rate that will allow them to be competitive. That is not very popular amongst infrastructure monopolies, oddly; although, it seems to work well for consumers in those areas.

  6. Mage Silver badge

    Trading your data

    I've nothing to hide. I'm doing nothing immoral, unethical or illegal.

    However I have no wish to share Location or ANY other personal data with anyone, except the minimum:

    Card info & name to make a payment. No you should NOT store my code on back of card. I want to have to type that in every time. I do not want one click ordering unless I have a trade account and 30 days credit.

    Address to deliver to.

    IBAN if you are paying me.

    I do not want Direct debit forced on me. It should be a choice.

    No third party scripts, resources or cookies on your website.

    No tracking at all.

    I want the Internet to be as anonymous as me listening to Radio, Watching TV (an unconnected) one, off line game, video etc.

    I do not wish to have all my preferences and activities harvested. It's like something a dystopian Police State would want. It's incompatible with freedom and democracy.

    Court order to find out user of a phone number, IP address, SIM, Domain Name or hosting account.

    1. GIRZiM
    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Trading your data

      "I've nothing to hide. I'm doing nothing immoral, unethical or illegal."

      The two statements are a non sequitur. The fact that you're doing nothing immoral, unethical or illegal doesn't mean you've nothing to hide.

      "Card info & name to make a payment. No you should NOT store my code on back of card."

      Your T&Cs for the card mean that you shouldn't give out that code to anyone who proposes to store it. That means that you have got something to hide.

      I wish people would simply drop this "I've got nothing to hide" stuff. It's just not true.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Trading your data

        Just counter with Cardinal Richlieu's "Give me six lines..."

  7. Luke Worm

    Actions, not only talk

    At least someone is doing something. Follow and

  8. Dan 55 Silver badge


    So I was playing with the new 'GDPR-compliant' Google account settings.

    It seems even if you disable location and Find My Device in Device admin apps, you can go to the find my device website, plop in account name and password, and Play Services will turn them back on for you.

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    ""I don't know how my valuable my personal data is today, "


    Google, Facebook and whole governments seem to think it's their data.

    It's our data.

    In a fair society the individual sets the access level to their data and the price (and there should be a price, because that's the only thing that stops governments wanting everything, all the time).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: ""I don't know how my valuable my personal data is today, "


      I believe if you pay money for a service such as cable TV, internet then they should not contain any ads because these services are funded by the customer.

      I believe as you do that a persons data is obviously worth something as it funds the largest corporations in the US (Facebook. Google)

  10. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

    >The major tech players simply pursue 'kill in the crib' strategies

    AKA Microsoft pre-noughties (when Bill basically got bored, having won so comprehensively by malicious abuse of power to subvert law)

  11. W.S.Gosset Silver badge


    >It's clear it's not free – you're being harvested for your data. So we're all being farmed for data. This is the first step on the road to serfdom, to use Hayek's phrase." But surely people are happy with that.

    >"Maybe they'd be happy in a feudal society too. They'd know their place. You get to muck things out. You get paid.

    Interesting that he used that analogy. That's precisely the one I'd settled on some years ago for this tactic. And it has a very old, very traditional English word pre-existing for it.


    the right to the shit of the tenants' sheep

  12. Howard Hanek

    Not 'Feudal'

    Feudalism can not exist without 'fealty'. From the highest to the lowest their bond was one of shared fealty.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Not 'Feudal'

      Are you saying we don't have fealty?


      1. Howard Hanek

        Re: Not 'Feudal'

        Submission is 'not' fealty. Submission is slavery.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Not 'Feudal'

        > Are you saying we don't have fealty?

        Not sure if you understood what he meant. Indeed he is correct: in a feudal relationship both parties had responsibilities, which is not the case here.

        But mind, his exact words were "feudal mindset", not feudal relationship.

  13. DerekCurrie

    Corporatocracy: Neo-Feudalism

    This has been blatantly obvious from my point of view for well over a decade.

    I'm glad others are catching up.

  14. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge

    Never buy a pig in a poke...

    I don't know how my valuable my personal data is today, because Google and Facebook are doing the monetising.

    Or in this case, don't sell or be one. This is an excellent but oft-overlooked point. A lot of folks point out that if you are getting it for free, you are the product, but this is more like it. We are selling very valuable information for the digital equivalent of a few glass beads and in some cases we are even persuaded to hand the beads back with interest.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I got one word for you; remember it well


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I got one word for you; remember it well

      > Lobbyists.

      They're overrated. If you ever saw them doing their job in / around parliaments you will notice that none pays any attention to them.

      The reason they win is because they turn up in the first place, which most of the time we consumers do not.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I got one word for you; remember it well

      Lobbyist; extended, expensive political campaigns paid for by political parties who are financed by wealthy donors; wealthy donors privately financing a particular candidate because of those extended expense campaigns. Political campaigns should have expense caps and be paid from the public purse; otherwise, the pols are beholden to those who pay for their campaigns.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I got one word for you; remember it well

        But that raises tax burdens on people already living paycheck-to-paycheck, if not day-to-day. It's rapidly devolving into a no-win situation. Either the police state pwns you or the wealthy pwn you in the state of anarchy, with no middle option that either won't last long or won't leave you alive.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nice article

    I found Mr Cowen very eloquent and it was interesting to hear what someone who knows the system from the inside had to say. Many thanks!

  17. pɹɐʍoɔ snoɯʎuouɐ
    Thumb Down

    regulating and breaking up of companies is not always the best solution for the customer..

    not too many years ago, if you wanted to watch premiership football in the UK, you paid sky around £18 quid a month for a sky sports subscription. Then they introduced a pay per view thing, where for an additional one off payment of £50 you got an additional 50 live matches a year. You knew where you were

    along came whoever it was complaining sky had a monopoly on premiership football and decided that it had to change....

    now, for a pure football fan, to watch the same number of matches you need sky sports and BT sport, which costs more per month than when sky had the goodies all to themselves. Good for competition, but not for the customer.

    don't get me wrong, i hate the ethos of the Murdoch empire the the shite quality of broadcasting... and it erks me paying them money each month for sky tv, so i threaten to leave each year and I get another discount..

    but care needs to be taken braking up a monopoly... make sure that it is in the best interest of the customer and not just the government creating a gap in the market for their buddies....

    1. King Jack

      Re: sky had a monopoly on premiership football

      The real solution was not to split the rights but to make it illegal for one company to have 'exclusive' rights. That way BT, Virgin, etc would all show all the games and they would complete on quality of service and price. Which is what it should be like in the first place. Buying up rights then exhorting money should not be allowed.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: sky had a monopoly on premiership football

        That could STILL have a knock-on effect. With the attraction of being the ONLY outlet with coverage, a network could feel covering the game isn't worth it anymore and decide not to buy. The only thing worse than ONE network hogging the coverage is NO networks covering it (10% of something vs. 100% of nothing). It's like with rural Internet in America. The main reason there's only one ISP most of the time is because the alternative would be NO ISP in the area. Without the sweetheart deals, ISPs wouldn't be willing to plunk down, and it's too expensive otherwise.

  18. ecofeco Silver badge

    How about we ban gathering personal data altogether?

    Crazy commie talk, I know.

    Somehow it became just fine for both the government AND corporations to spy on us. In the name of capitalism and freedom.

  19. Joe Gurman


    "IBM allowed the 1981 PC to be an open system...." For software, yes, but it wasn't really open until, ten months after the PC debuted, that Columbia offered the reviser PC clone with a reverse-engineered BIOS.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Um....

      Did you mean Compaq and the clean-roomed PC clone BIOS?

    2. bigtreeman

      Re: Um....

      No, IBM published the BIOS and circuit diagrams. When you looked at clone circuits, they often used 'equivalent' circuitry and BIOS, slightly changing the gates and code to perform the exact same function. I could put copied IBM roms into my clone motherboard, which allowed me to run Basic and other apps tied to the IBM BIOS.

      Note: not everyone could get their hands on this info ;-) I worked for a company that serviced IBM gear and 'found' a few manuals.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Um....

        IBM published the diagrams and so on to assert copyright and protect their property. Compaq got around that by not referring to them in making their clone BIOS. Thus the "clean-room" approach that eventually held up in court.

  20. GIRZiM

    Rather than break up Google, can we try owning our data?

    What an excellent idea!

    After all, just because you're broke and hungry that doesn't mean you're obliged to sell a kidney or a lung - you could always starve on the street instead.

  21. mwnci

    Former BT manager talks about MONOPOLIES? Pot-kettle-black

    So a former senior management guy from British Telecom / is now advocating "breaking monopolies"...

    When his previous work at BT, whose subsidary "that is functionally separate" BT OPENREACH are responsible UNDER LAW and ACT OF PARLIAMENT, to be the only entity authorised to connect residences and businesses to the Telco network even if you buy through a third party Telco.

    "Openreach is responsible for installing and maintaining the UK’s main telecoms network used by all telecoms providers, including BT's retail divisions. This means that Openreach does not sell phone, broadband or TV services direct to retail customers. Instead, it works on behalf of service providers (such as Sky, TalkTalk and BT) to maintain the local access network that covers retail customers."

    This guy has zero credibility, but it's ok, he's no doubt on 6 figure sum.

  22. bigtreeman

    Your data is valuable

    If your data is valuable, Google and all data abusers should pay you for the privilege of using your data.

    If you see no value in yourself, give your valuable data away for nothing.

    One problem is Google owns Android which gives them the first option of pwning everyone with an android phone. I'm looking forward to Eelo getting off the ground which will do for phones what Linux did for our computers.

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