16 September 2019
Jack Ma has predicted that Alibaba will become the fifth largest "economy" in the world in two decades. Photo: Reuters
Jack Ma has predicted that Alibaba will become the fifth largest "economy" in the world in two decades. Photo: Reuters

Are internet giants becoming too powerful?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in a message posted on his own social media platform last weekend, sought forgiveness “for the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring them together”.

Although he didn’t specify how his work divided people, it is believed Zuckerberg was referring to his company being under fire for Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election.

US Congress is carrying out an investigation into the scope of the Russian interference in the 2016 American election. It’s reported that Russian government agencies have manipulated around 470 fake Facebook accounts and spent about US$100,000 on political advertising to subvert the election.

The saga illustrates the far-reaching influence of big internet companies.

Internet giants such as Facebook, Google, Tencent, Alibaba are influencing the way billions of people live every day. With increasing control over big data, their clout will only grow bigger.

Dominance of old economy companies, such as those in oil, airline or power generation, is only confined to a specific industry. By contrast, the kind of dominance internet giants enjoy is much more powerful and far reaching.

The tech giants can practically change the way people think and live, and even how they vote. Russia’s meddling in US election has well proved this. One day, internet platforms could dictate what news we read, how we vote, where we dine, even trivial things like which brand of toilet paper we buy. It seems quite ridiculous, but we are not far away from that day.

History has proven that power tends to corrupt. But there are some bottom lines in legal and ethical framework that no one should cross.

Rapidly evolving technology has moved ahead of regulation and hence left some gray areas. How to balance innovation and fair competition has become a hot topic.

Leaders of the internet giants are well aware of their influence. But they are responding to their power in very different ways.

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, is all engrossed in his dream of building a bigger internet empire. He once put forward his ambition about setting up a digital free-trade zone, which will have no issues like tariff and currency exchange.

With such a free-trade zone to comprise business-to-business, business-to-customer, as well as courier service companies, Ma wants to reshape the supply chain.

He even boldly predicts that Alibaba will become the fifth largest “economy” in the world in two decades.

Zuckerberg, by contrast, chose to reflect on the responsibility and influence of Facebook and himself instead.

Which corporate culture is better for the industry and the world in the long run? I think the answer is quite obvious.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 6

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Information Technology Federation Chairman