UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Anina Henggeler - PhD candidate

Can you briefly describe what your research project is about?

Our understanding of market power is changing. Over the last five years or so we’ve seen a growing interest and study of the many ways in which global technology companies are impacting our lives. One remarkable trend is the growing concern from policy makers, citizens, users, businesses and others, over the increasing power of a relatively small group of market organizations known as the tech giants, or GAF (Google, Amazon, Facebook). Organisations that have brought us many benefits are now seen as direct contributors to some unfavourable developments, apparently affecting everything from our individual beings to our social structures and institutions –– shaping our beliefs, undermining our elections, threatening economic stability and aiding a burgeoning wealth divide, the list goes on. What we know is that these organisations are powerful and wealthy, however, there is still very little understanding around the specific nature of power that these companies wield: how it is sourced and how it is exercised. Therefore, there is little scholarly guidance as to how we, as a policy community, can both detect as well as come to know (and therefore judge) instances where market power has become misaligned with democratic societal objectives.

Many of the traditional economic concepts and legal tools which we have deployed to identify, prevent and disrupt concentrations of market power in the past –– think the U.S.’s ‘trust busting’ movement of the early 1900s –– have so far proved less than effective on the new tech giants. So, what is it that makes Facebook different from two of the biggest monopolies of that time: Western Railway and Standard Oil? And, why haven’t the concepts and legal tools which were used to block Western Railway and Standard Oil (1904 and 1911 respectively), managed to safeguard us from the modern, tech-enabled monopolies of today?

For one, these organisations managed to commodify a new, elusive type of resource, one which flows with ease and opacity between companies and across borders: data. Their services are also largely offered to users free of charge. And their global business models operate on a set of digital technologies. These are fused together, making them difficult to differentiate while they sustain technological development at a greater velocity and with a greater scale, scope and societal implication than perhaps ever before. Such differences challenge our traditional conception of monopoly, whilst rendering legal ideas that emphasise cost and pricing strategies ineffectual.

This project aims to provide theoretical and analytical tools by which to better understand the nature of market power in the global tech context. We do so with the objective to contribute to the understanding of the power within our current era –– the fourth industrial revolution –– and with a view to inform public policy strategies that seek to detect and judge instances of excessive concentrations of market power.

What do you find exciting about this project?

I love that we are working on a topical issue. I have the feeling that these days, there is rarely a news cycle that fails to touch on issues of global tech, power or the scramble of public policy officials around the world looking to understand and act to improve the social implications of global tech organisations. I consider it one of the defining issues of our day and feel very fortunate to be able to contribute, even if in a small way, to learning in this area.

What are you working on now to prepare for the next stage of the project?

I just wrapped up a pilot study collaboration with Professor Igor Nikolic, Jochem Vlug and Tim van de Laarschot from the Delft University of Technology. Together we developed an Agent-Based Model (ABM) which tested the viability of a handful of proposed policy interventions in their effectiveness to curb data concentration in the social media sector –– we consider data concentration is a form of knowledge concentration, something we argue goes to the heart of monopoly power in the social media context. I am now working with the guys on developing a paper to present our findings, watch this space!