We need the Murdochs of the web

Concentrated media ownership appears to be what we want when we're online

As Rupert Murdoch is forced to sell off BSkyB's stake in ITV, it is worth reflecting on media ownership in the internet age. One of the reasons many have been so enthusiastic about the networked, digital technology that is the worldwide web is that it promised an antidote to concentrated media ownership. It disintermediates, it connects people, bypassing a media elite perceived as being too close to power.

Thus are the Lilliputians left to argue in peace about the correct way to eat a boiled egg, with no need for intervention from the giant Gulliver. So the theory goes.

In practice, things are turning out rather differently. At the end of last month Microsoft, the weary giant of the desktop that is itself not unfamiliar with the cold intervention of the competition police, made Yahoo! an offer its board may find hard to refuse. In a move that can be interpreted as Microsoft's last stab at acquiring relevance in online space, it wooed Yahoo with a reported $50bn from its bulging coffers. Any merger would turn Google's two closest competitors into one, slightly closer competitor, though such an entity (Yasoft!? Microhoo?) would still not be a terribly good second, with Google serving more than 75 per cent of the market for web searches in the UK.

So, despite appearances, it seems there is still room for giants in the internet age. The web is a different kind of market from the broadcast or desktop markets dominated by Murdoch and Gates. Unlike broadcast, it does not represent a finite spectrum. Unlike the desktop, it is not closed off to competitors by proprietary code. The internet is powered by standard code that is accessible to any competitor and its potential for growth is infinite.

Yet one company - Google - has made itself synonymous with looking stuff up on the web, in the process doing rather a good sideline in selling classified ads for the eyeballs it attracts.

Should we be worried as well as disillusioned? Perhaps. Already, at closed-door meetings where "stakeholders" gather with policymakers to map out the future of internet regulation, it is the recognisable names of internet giants that sit around the table.

I often attend these meetings on behalf of the Open Rights Group, scoffing inwardly at the mistaken belief that by leaning on industry, national governments, those "weary giants of flesh and steel", as John Perry Barlow styled them in his 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, can change the way we connect online. But maybe it is I who am kidding myself.

Although it is true that the web could exist perfectly well without any Googles or Microhoos to help it, the fact that the majority of us little people seem to like the odd giant in our life suggests that the web is not the agent to unite Lilliput. The web is where the people are, not where the dreams are, after all.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation