Book Review: Internet Empire – The Hidden Digital War

September 27, 2023

In Internet Empire, Sean Ennis has fashioned a work that is ‘unabashedly not an academic treatise’ and instead aims to act as a refreshing ‘call to action’. There is not a footnote in sight, but it is evident that this highly engaging account of the meteoric rise of a small subset of digital firms is based upon the author’s wealth of research, together with his experience from in and around the proverbial trenches. Whereas so many titles on the same theme leave the reader with more questions than answers, the book offers-up a set of concrete take-aways upon which the zealous could readily act. Indeed, this is a title that might just as comfortably be catalogued under ‘self-help’ as economics, law or political science.

Three observations stand out. First, and the core narrative of the book, is that empire-building has turned digital. Ennis defines an ’empire’ as an ‘entity with a large or predominating size in geography and commerce’ and details how the remarkable growth of (ostensibly) independent US Internet companies has enabled their home nation to establish, in aggregate, a ‘Second American Empire’. A bloodless war has been fought, and won, using new digital tools to achieve broadly the same set of economic objectives that underpin traditional empire-building. The Internet Empire is founded on the realisation that economic control derives from the capture of global ‘virtual transactions’ by US firms, which have, in turn, been generously supported by their government through myriad political, economic and diplomatic measures. This is ‘the new frontier’: a decentralised empire that dispenses with armies and physical hostility, relying instead upon ‘natural means of customer adoption of US platforms and US solutions’ to fuel growth. Indeed it is surmised that such a ‘takeover should therefore not be viewed by customers as a takeover by the enemy’. Compelling as it may sound, this reader cannot help but question the stylisation of digital empires as ‘a peaceful expansion of economic influence’. Where does the extraordinary human and environmental degradation that characterises so many digital supply-chains figure in this tale of empire-building?

The second observation is that a new kind of regulatory war is heating-up, as governments jostle to implement bold interventions in the commercial liberty of the US giants and, in turn, create space for local empires-in-the-making to flourish. The law, as embodied by new regulations such as the recently enacted EU Digital Markets Act, is portrayed as something of a blunt instrument. What determines the success of the prevailing internet giants and distinguishes them from, in particular, their European counterparts is ‘a host of factors that might arise in greater amounts in the US than elsewhere’, including what is neatly described as the ‘frontier mentality inherited from the US’s early history’. The question is whether Europe, and other beleaguered jurisdictions, should embrace rather than constrain the disruptive digital business models their citizens have apparently willingly welcomed into their homes and adopt more of a US-style mentality? Studying the decline of empires, Ennis finds endurance is predicated not only on the maintenance of conquest profits above capture costs but, ultimately, on ‘acceptance’ by the occupied. On both counts, the new Internet Empire bears the hallmarks of longevity. In other words, top-down resistance, regardless of its underlying political or economic assumptions and motivations, is likely to be futile. Harms do exist, but the book, almost apologetically, sets many of these aside. For example, although a comparison between Internet (over-) consumption and tobacco is ventured, the author’s position appears to be far less interventionist than the US surgeon general, who recently suggested that enforceable product safety standards should be applied to social media in order to help families to navigate digital life. Rather than waiting for and relying upon state-driven paternalism, Ennis finds that ultimate power and responsibility rests with each of us.

And this leads to the third, and most important, observation: individual action is required to regain (some of) the territory currently under the control of the Internet Empire. Reaching a slightly abrupt crescendo, Ennis proposes a ‘menu of 15 individual actions to create a fairer, healthier internet’, snappily titled ‘Taming the Giants’. Six of these actions are aimed at controlling market power, such as using third-party platforms ‘only when they add real value’ and purposely using multiple providers. Five are designed to ameliorate societal harms, including that well-worn plea to support local brick-and-mortar stores. And, finally, four actions are directed at ensuring that ‘individual consequences are acceptable’, including controlling Internet usage and interacting face-to-face wherever possible. The final words on the menu are capitalised: ‘STAY HUMAN’. Although that conclusion is largely music to this reader’s ears – I have long argued that the ‘doctrine of special responsibility’ – and it will not be to all tastes. While it is convincingly argued that change can flow from individual decision-making, this stance discounts the reality that some of the negative consequences of war also demand reparations. Here the book misses an opportunity to reflect critically on the role of private individual and collective legal action. There is, quite clearly, a place for this, evidenced not least by Ennis’ decision to spearhead a billion-dollar class action against Apple on behalf of UK app developers claiming that ‘excessive’ fees charged on in-app sales by the US giant amount to an exploitative abuse.

Brimming with rich storytelling, Internet Empire is a compelling, highly enjoyable, account of empires past and present that acts as a springboard for vital discussion. Ennis has given life to a book that begs to be read – and acted upon.

Ben Evans is a Postgraduate Researcher at the School of Law and Centre for Competition Policy, University of East Anglia.

About the book

  • Internet Empire: The Hidden Digital War by Professor Sean F. Ennis
  • Published May 2023
  • Hardcover, 236 pages
  • ISBN: 1739692241
  • £26.99

Front cover for Internet Empire