Let The Big Dogs Eat

Every day, it seems, I read a message or news story complaining that big companies are buying or bullying their way onto dominance of the Internet.

Most of the complaints amount to two words – money and lawyers. Firms like Cox Enterprises have the capital to build sites like MP3Radio.Com, aimed at giving radio stations a place in digital music with tools and downloads they can customize for their audience or market.

The lawyer problem is illustrated by a story in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader this week. The State Bank & Trust of Harrodsburg found that someone had anonymously posted a screed against their bank, using Lycos’ free Angelfire service, linked to a URL on Tonga’s .to domain. The bank had the site taken-down, then sued to get the poster’s name, with plans to pursue a libel action. The story was told with all the excitement of a traffic report.

The fact is big businesses are the only kind that can go toe to toe with big governments and expect to win. This gives them the market and legal power to bully individuals. Big businesses can afford to flood meetings of groups like ICANN and make sure private interests, not just public interests, are heard. It’s plain to every business that they must have a place on the web, or they won’t have a place in the future, so big businesses are using every weapon at their disposal.

It’s easy to see why big businesses are concerned. The visibility of brands like Priceline, eBay, and Amazon is extraordinary. A survey by Opinion Research Inc., Princeton, NJ, found more than half of us know about Priceline and Amazon, and almost half of us know eBay. With the high price of Internet equity, this is awareness that can’t be bought – yet. It’s a position that big businesses, with histories going back decades or centuries are not accustomed to.

What that means is you can expect to see a lot more of what I call “stupid corporate tricks” over the next several years. Each attempt to stamp-out dissent or “control” the web will be resisted and reported, delaying big business’ efforts to reach their goals that much further.

Look at the history of other media. Newspapers became chains, and chains bred “press barons.” Radio stations became networks, and networks bred “radio barons” who then dominated the new medium of television and became “television barons.” Cable became concentrated in a very few hands, and most of those assets were eventually bought by AT&T. Tim Koogle and Jeff Bezos are among the first “Internet Barons,” and there will be more.

Everyone expects market concentration on the Internet, and many people are surprised it hasn’t already happened. The need for databases, marketing, and fulfillment capabilities are creating barriers to entry in some parts of this business, but not all of them. If you’re interested in serving a niche – whether serving your community as an ISP, or focusing on important unfilled needs, however, you can still win.

So let the big dogs eat. They’re sloppy, they’ll protect your interests in order to protect theirs, and there’s still plenty of business to go around.

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