Bank of Canada warns of leaving ‘winner-takes-all’ digital economy unchecked

OTTAWA — A top Bank of Canada official is warning about the risks related to the growing dominance of a handful of big players in the digital economy and, more specifically, their tightening grip over user data.

Senior deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins said Thursday that policy upgrades should be a priority for governments concerned about the potential economic and social consequences of leaving the market power of some of the world’s largest tech companies “unchecked.”

The digital economy packs the potential to raise economic growth and improve overall living standards, as long as efforts are made not to leave some people behind, Wilkins said in a speech at a G7 symposium focused on innovation and inclusive growth.

But she also laid out the central bank’s unease about advancing market concentration, particularly when it comes to the rise of so-called “superstar” tech firms.

Wilkins emphasized concerns about the use of big data by tech giants, which she said include social-media companies and online marketplaces. Their ability to access and control user data has enabled some to drive out their rivals and weaken the healthy, economy-wide benefits of competition, she said.

“The winner-takes-all effect is magnified in the digital economy, (in) part because user data have become another source of monopoly power,” she said in her speech in Montebello, Que., east of Ottawa.

“We’re not going to get the full benefits of innovation if we leave market power unchecked.”

The speech also said large tech firms that lack a fixed, physical location could end up generating fewer jobs than conventional companies and could also avoid taxes more easily.

The central bank’s detailed message on data came as leaders in Canada’s tech community press governments to develop a plan to help the country reap the rewards and navigate the risks associated with the increasingly important world of big data.

Some Canadian tech leaders have been lobbying the federal government for a commitment to create a national data strategy. In last year’s budget, Ottawa pledged to develop a national intellectual-property strategy, which is still in the works.

A spokeswoman for Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said last week that there’s a role for the government in helping Canada become a leader in data and that discussions are underway.

In Thursday’s speech, Wilkins said many jurisdictions need more clarity to deal with legal concerns over data privacy, security, intellectual property and consumer rights.

She laid out potential solutions such as modernizing anti-trust and competition policy as well as exploring data-ownership rules. The ideas, she added, include the possibility of giving users control over their own data, making firms pay people for their data and regulating tech platforms as utilities.

“If user data are an important source of monopoly rents in the digital age, how should we regulate who owns the data and how they’re shared?” said Wilkins. The world’s five biggest technology companies have a market capitalization of about US$3.5 trillion, she noted — almost one-fifth of the size of the U.S. economy.

“We’re going to need to judge wisely when it’s best to use public policy tools to manage the risks and when it’s best to let private enterprise work its magic.”

With the emergence of giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google, policy-makers around the globe are searching for ways to obtain the economic benefits while managing the threats linked to privacy and sovereignty. For example, just last month, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a European-wide data strategy.

In her speech, Wilkins also stressed the need to ensure workers have the right skills and training necessary for the transforming labour market, which is undergoing rapid change because of new technologies.

Beyond re-skilling, she said public policy should focus on removing barriers to make it easier for more women and people with disabilities to enter the workforce.

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