APAC consumers’ love-hate relationship with Big Tech

Photo by Rami Al-zayat

This year’s Asia Pacific Internet Policy Insights survey reveals that nearly all consumers (96%) in APAC depend in some way on “Big Tech” companies for their products and services for their online activities, but are uneasy with this dependence.

The findings of the survey indicate that users and businesses are benefiting from consolidation at the applications layer where a few large Internet companies, predominantly from the United States and China, are providing on their platforms, incredible convenience and access to targeted products, services and markets. But users are aware of and concerned about security and privacy threats.

The survey, which had more than 1,300 respondents from across 39 economies in the region, was conducted by the Internet Society, a global non-profit dedicated to the open development, evolution and use of the Internet. Working through a global community of chapters and members, the Internet Society collaborates with a broad range of groups to promote the technologies that keep the Internet safe and secure and advocates for policies that enable universal access.

The study focused on consolidation in the Internet economy where a handful of corporate players increasingly dominate the online world. The survey also delves into how this is shaping the online landscape and the functionality of the Internet.

High dependence on large platforms

With virtually all (96%) respondents highlighting their dependence on large platforms, it is clear that the largest players are dominating vast swathes of the Internet. This includes Facebook and Tencent in social networks, Google and Baidu in search, and Amazon and Alibaba in online shopping.

They have been given acronyms like “GAFAs” (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), “FANGs” (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) and “BATs” (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent), these Internet giants are providing Internet users with incredible convenience on their easily accessed application platforms. 

Close to half of the respondents, 47%, felt that these large players fully influenced how they accessed and used the Internet. And when you include those who felt they at least had partial influence, this figure shoots up to 95%. Their platforms have become the primary means for gaining access to the Internet, for news, buying and selling services, and education, as well as for interacting with friends and family, businesses, and government.

Furthermore, these Internet giants are expanding from their areas of dominance—e.g., Google’s search, Facebook’s social media platforms and Alibaba’s e-commerce sites—and extending their influence and reach into new domains through acquisitions, new product developments, advancements in artificial intelligence and investments in the network infrastructure. 

Consumers are also keenly aware that they will have a tough time finding alternatives for the services provided by these companies. Just 5 out of every 100 respondents believe it would be very easy to find a suitable replacement. And only a third of those surveyed (34%) felt that they had more choices today than they did 5 years ago.

APAC consumers want more choice, but mistrust alternatives

Despite the current dependence on Big Tech, the majority of consumers in the region would like to see more choice in the market, with 60% of those surveyed highlighting that they would like to have the ability to choose products and services from more than just five companies. This translates to wanting more choice from both big and small companies.

The top five categories that consumers would like to see more choices in are in E-commerce websites, search engines, social media platforms, email providers and messaging apps.

However, whilst they may wish to see increasing choices, consumers in the region remain unconvinced that smaller alternatives are safe. Only 16% of those surveyed indicated having high or very high levels of trust for small companies on the Internet. This is versus 53% who felt the same about big companies on the Internet.

Security is a priority

The Asia-Pacific Policy Survey found that security has come out tops once again with security and trust the main concerns for the region’s Internet users for the third year in a row. However, in addition to the issue of security, consumers are also beginning to pay more attention to the need for consumer protection.

For the first time since the survey started in 2014, Internet users have cited consumer protection as a top-five concern, in terms of public policy. The new focus could signify rising awareness of the need for consumer rights to be addressed.

“This year’s report will help policymakers and other decision-makers in the region understand that digital consolidation involves a complex set of issues. While people benefit from big tech’s products and services, they are clearly concerned about associated security and privacy threats, and they also want more choice,” said Rajnesh Singh, APAC Regional Director of the Internet Society.

“The desire of Internet users in the region to have a variety of service providers to choose from suggests that policymakers need to make sure that policies targeted at developing the digital economy do not favor only the large players, but nurture and cultivate small-and-medium-sized firms,” he adds.

Earlier this year, the Internet Society published the 2019 Global Internet Report on this issue as a starting point for exploring whether the Internet economy is consolidating and, if it is, what the implications might be for the future of digital communications, connectivity, and commerce.