The Big Four

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Companies that makeup GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple)[1]

The “Big Four” – also known as “The Four[2], “GAFA”, or “The Four Horsemen” – is a title for the large tech companies Google (Alphabet), Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. These four corporations stand out from other big tech companies due to one characteristic: their ability to influence political and societal change and consumer behavior through their oligopolization of the digital market. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said, they “drive the consumer revolution in the minds of the consumer”[3], isolating them from other big tech companies like Microsoft and IBM. However, this immense power has so far gone without major regulation, leaving the Big Four as de facto market regulators.[4] As their size and market dominance expand, the international concern of the Big Four's ethical violation of antitrust laws continues to grow.

Who are "The Big Four"?

The Big Four have a combined market capitalization of almost $4.5 trillion USD.[5][6] While all four companies operate within the same general digital economy, each company specifically monopolizes an area of the digital market that is mostly different from the others while slowly venturing out into other areas. This allows them to dominate their market while creating an oligopoly of the general digital economy.


Run by parent company Alphabet, Google plays to the “head” or “brain” of human beings.[2] With the monopolization of search and digital advertising, Google has found itself in several lawsuits regarding their anti-competitive conduct and the promotion of Google’s products in search results over independent competitors. Despite $9 billion in fines, legal action has done little to influence Google’s business practices or market position.[7]

Google has, over time, aggressively acquired more companies. These companies include, but are not limited to, Android, YouTube, and AdSense.[8] Android is an operating system for mobile phones which competes with iOS from Apple. As of May 7, 2019, over 2.5 billion active devices were running Android.[9] Similarly, YouTube is a free video-sharing website created in 2005. Every month, visitors watch around 6 billion hours worth of videos.[10] Lastly, AdSense is an advertisement platform that helps website owners earn money by displaying ads.[11] Website owners get paid every time a user clicks on an ad, with the owner getting 68% of the income and Google getting 32% of it. As a result of this margin, Google makes a large share of its income through AdSense.[12]

In March 2021, Google announced plans to stop using technologies that track individuals across multiple websites[13]. The move was made less than a year after an antitrust lawsuit on Google was filed by the U.S Justice Department. It also means that Google will no longer sell ads based on users' browser activity across multiple websites. According to Jounce Media, a digital ad consultancy, Google accounted for 52% of last year’s global digital ad spending of $292 billion[14]. The decision could reshape the digital advertising business by pushing companies away from individualized web tracking.


Apple is a technology company that produces and sells mobile phones, computers, consumer services, and more. Some of the most notable products include the iPhone, iPad, Mac, iPod, Apple Watch, and the Apple TV.[15] As of January 2021, there are 1.65 billion Apple devices in use with over a billion iPhones sold.[16] In the 2018 fiscal year, Apple sold more than 217 million iPhones.[17] Year after year, Apple has seen an average trend of increasing revenue with 274.515 billion dollars in revenue for the 2020 fiscal year.[18]

Apple plays on “procreation” by utilizing the common consumer behavior of making irrational decisions.[2] As the most profitable company in history, Apple’s profits are greater than the combined profits of Google, Facebook, and Amazon.[2]

Starting around 2019, it became apparent that Apple began to shift its focus from hardware to services more dramatically than ever before. The commonly cited reason for this change is the decrease in dramatic improvements between newer and older models of the company’s flagship products, ultimately leading to a gradual plateau in sales of Apple products and therefore revenue. However, services like Apple Music, the App Store, and iCloud have seen increasingly profitable growth. In 2019, Apple CFO Luca Maestri stated that services accounted for around one third of the company’s total profits. This switch could potentially signal an increased reliance on user data in the future, which Apple has for the most part not needed, since their business model was focused primarily on physical products with no reliance on advertising. [19]


Facebook is a social networking site created in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg that plays to the “heart” by tapping into the human desire to love and be loved by others (through images and previous relationships that create empathy and expand an individual’s circle of love).[2] It allows people to connect with friends and family over the internet and has over 1 billion users worldwide.[20] In 2020, Facebook generated around $86 billion in revenue, with its main source of income being advertisements on its website. Over time, Facebook has expanded its influence and acquired other social media platforms. According to mobile intelligence firm Apptopia, Facebook owns four of the top 10 most downloaded apps of 2020: WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook.[21]

In 2013, Zuckerberg announced, later renamed to Free Basics. The program seeks to provide internet access to populations with cell service coverage (around 85% of the world) but without a way to go online. It is presented as an altruistic initiative to connect more people around the world, help them become better educated, and access the countless other benefits of the internet. However, users are required to make a Facebook account to access the greater Internet, and even when they do, the experience is largely controlled by Facebook. In addition to pushing their own affiliated products to users, most news is from Western sources, making it rarely up to date. This methodology has been coined by critics as “digital colonialism.” [22] A survey of users in Indonesia found that a noticeable amount of participants claimed that they used Facebook, but had never used the internet [23] , exemplifying how tight Facebook’s control is through Free Basics.


As the leader in e-commerce with 50% of all online sales occurring through Amazon, the platform plays to the gut or “large intestine” of humans.[2][24] Individuals are biologically programmed to survive and believe that less is bad and more is always better, a fact that drives much of Amazon's success.[2] Their monopolization of e-commerce makes it near impossible for independent merchants to compete with the company.[5] In the late 2000s, for example, Amazon drove an online diapers seller, Quidsi, into selling their company to Amazon by creating a competing product and selling at a loss. Eventually, Amazon’s lower prices caused Quidsi to lose much of its consumer base and they were bought out by Amazon. [25]

Founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, Amazon initially sold books online but quickly expanded to music and video sales.[26] Now you can buy almost any material good on Amazon, and the company is valued at over $1.6 trillion.[27] Another major component of Amazon’s business model is Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS was founded in 2002 and is the world’s largest cloud computing platform. In the fourth quarter of 2020, AWS brought in $12.7 billion in revenue, 10% of all Amazon revenue during that period.[28] The importance of AWS to the company is exemplified Andy Jassy, the head of AWS since its inception. He has been named successor as CEO to Jeff Bezos. Bezos will be stepping down during the third quarter of 2021.[29]

Antitrust Laws

Antitrust laws are statutes and regulations that were created to promote free and open markets. Their goal is to prohibit unfair competition. These laws prohibit competitors from using tactics such as market division, price-fixing, agreements to not compete, and abusing monopoly power to force smaller competitors out of business.[30] The first antitrust law, the Sherman Act, was passed by Congress in 1890. Two more laws were passed in 1914: the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Clayton Act. [31]

The Sherman Act

When Congress passed this act in 1890, it outlawed “every contract, combination, or conspiracy in restraint to trade” and “monopolization, attempted monopolization, or conspiracy or combination to monopolize.” [31] The Supreme court later ruled that the Sherman Act only applies to “unreasonable restraints” of trade. [32] If a company violates the Sherman Act, they can experience both civil and criminal charges, but criminal action is reserved for intentional violations, like price-fixing. Criminal penalties can lead to a fine of up to $100 million for a corporation and $1 million for an individual, as well as up to 10 years in prison. [31]

The Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC)

The Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA), passed in 1914 by Congress, bans unfair and deceptive methods of competition and practice. The implementation of the FTCA also created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) organization. [31] The FTC enforces the Act, as well as 70 other statutes, including the Clayton Act. Their mission is to “protect consumers and promote competition.” [33] The original wording of the Act did not include the phrase “unfair deceptive acts or practices.” Initially, the Supreme Court ruled that FTCA only applied to unfair practices against competitors, and consumer exploitation alone was not sufficient enough. To combat this, Congress added the Wheeler-Lea Amendments, which added the phrase “unfair deceptive acts or practices.” [34]

The Clayton Act

The Clayton Act, passed in 1914, addresses specific practices that the Sherman Act doesn’t explicitly protect against, like mergers and interlocking directorates. The Clayton Act has been amended multiple times. The Robinson-Patman Act of 1936] was added to ban discriminatory prices, services, and allowances in dealings between merchants. In 1976, the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act was passed, which requires companies to notify the government in advance if they are planning large mergers. [31]

Ethical Concerns: Antitrust

America's growing concern of GAFA's antitrust violations[35]

As international governments struggle to regulate these multinational corporations, the Big Four face many antitrust allegations. Through tax avoidance, privacy invasion, job destruction, and deregulation, the Big Four have become an oligopoly dominating the digital economy and online market.[2][36]

Anti-competitive Practices

GAFA has been accused of anti-competitive misconduct that has allowed them to dominate the market and deter potential competitors. Their increasing use of big data and machine learning in business practices have allowed GAFA to lock in users and reinforce network effects.[37] In turn, this has deterred market entry as competitors fear GAFA’s market dominance or are bought out by GAFA before they have the chance to become a real competitor.[37] Each company exhibits a "Winner-Take-All" business model that enables them to rise to the top of the market at the expense of their competitors.[2][37] This economic system has created an oligopoly where the Big Four already dominate the market, making it nearly impossible to dislodge them from their positions.[37] Each of the four companies dominates a unique section of the digital market that allows them to monopolize their specific industry without experiencing competition from any of the other GAFA companies.

International governing bodies, such as the U.S. Congress and the European Union, struggle to regulate these multinational corporations. Officials have launched investigations and filed lawsuits against the Big Four in attempts to regulate their behavior and promote fair competition within the digital economy. However, the Big Four have become so large and powerful that legal consequences leave them virtually unphased as they pay the large-sum fines and continue with their anticompetitive practices.[7][38]

Big Data & Privacy Violation

A Pew Research Center study found that six-in-Ten Americans believe that it is not possible to go through daily life without having their data collected.[39]

Like much of big tech, GAFA utilizes user data and private information to predict trends, sculpt user behavior, influence public perceptions, and profit from selling this data to third parties. As predicted by French theorist Jean-François Lyotard, the commercialization of knowledge causes shifts in how knowledge and information are valued and shapes the social, political, and economic behaviors of society.[40][41] The Big Four can take user data, analyze it, and display it back to the individual in a manner that sculpts consumer perspective to align it with corporate goals. Consumers see what GAFA wants them to see. Their utilization of intellectual property rights results in data manipulation that etches a digital divide between those who capitalize on data (GAFA and big tech) and the users who provide the data.[41][42] The data collected by GAFA includes, but is not limited to, a user's IP address, crash reports, system activity, date, time, location, the referrer of URL requests, interactions between apps, app usage, carrier name, and operator name.[43] They also collect information on a user's name, phone number, payment information, photos, videos, documents, and other personal content.[43]

Many of these companies combine user data across multiple subsidiary companies. For example, Instagram's parent company, Facebook, utilizes the data of Instagram users for Facebook advertising.[44] Similarly, parent company Google collects data on users of Google Maps, Gmail, and their other conglomerate businesses and shares this data across all of their subsidiary companies.[43] This means that the data of users collected on one platform is utilized for a different platform. This collected data is often then sold to third-party businesses that the user is likely unaware of.[43] This means that by accepting GAFA's terms and conditions, you are accepting the reality that these companies will sell your data to third-party companies without notifying you which companies will now have access to your data.

Users are willing to give away data because they have a greater fear of what they could miss out on by not using these platforms than their fear of how GAFA uses their data.[45] The Big Four companies have created a digital environment that is so reliant on their platforms and services that the user inconvenience of not using these platforms is greater than many other individual human concerns. Also, GAFA companies make the physical reading of their terms and conditions documents so difficult that the majority of prospective users find it extremely difficult to read the documents.[39] This means that the majority of users fail to understand how GAFA is collecting their data and using it.

However, some believe that because GAFA has designed the infrastructures and tools that make data usable, they hold the “moral right to profit from data”.[41] The analysis and use of data are architectured into the design and business process of these companies; without the use of data, they would be unable to operate.[46] The Big Four's software and hardware infrastructure are reliant on their ability to deliver specialized content and services to internet users.

Privacy Sandbox

In 2021, Google announced the creation of a new-age privacy tool called the "Privacy Sandbox". According to Google, the service will "eliminate third-party cookies by replacing them with viable privacy-first alternatives, developed alongside ecosystem partners, that will help publishers and advertisers succeed while also protecting people’s privacy as they move across the web."[47] The Privacy Sandbox will help power technology advancements like FLoC (Federation Learning of Cohorts) to build new ways for businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads. This post-third-party cookie world would occur by digitally clustering large groups of people with similar interests[48]. The approach would effectively hide individuals “in the crowd” and use on-device processing to keep a person’s web history private on the browser. Google believes that "based on initial FLoC results, the ongoing development of the APIs, and encouraging dialogue with the ad industry, the Privacy Sandbox is the best path forward to improve privacy for web users while ensuring publishers can earn what they need to fund great content and advertisers can reach the right people for their products".[49]

Some Privacy Sandbox proposals include[50]

  • Privacy Model for the Web: Establish the range of web activity across which the user's browser can let websites treat a person as having a single identity. Identify the ways in which information can move across identity boundaries without compromising that separation.
  • Privacy Budget: Limit the total amount of potentially identifiable data that sites can access. Update APIs to reduce the amount of potentially identifiable data revealed. Make access to potentially identifiable data measurable.
  • Willful IP Blindness: Enable sites to 'blind' themselves to IP addresses so they can avoid consuming their privacy budget.
  • Trust Token API: Enable an origin that trusts a user to issue them with cryptographic tokens which are stored by the user's browser so they can be used in other contexts to evaluate the user's authenticity.
  • First-Party Sets: Allow related domain names owned by the same entity to declare themselves as belonging to the same first party.
  • Aggregated Reporting: Provide privacy-preserving mechanisms to support a variety of use cases such as view-through-conversion, brand, lift, and reach measurement.

Antitrust Cases

Google, Facebook, and Amazon are all currently facing antitrust lawsuits from governmental bodies. Currently, Apple is not facing any cases, however, there are reports that Facebook is actively preparing a case against them regarding their App Store policies.[51]

Google is currently facing three separate antitrust lawsuits. The case against them, set to go to trial sometime in 2023, is led by the US Department of Justice and alleges that Google cut deals with smartphone makers to be the default search engine on the devices.[52] Facebook is facing an antitrust lawsuit from the US Federal Trade Commission that alleges they bought up competitors WhatsApp and Instagram to get rid of them as competition.[53] Amazon is facing charges from the European Union that allege they used data they collected from third-party sellers on their site to benefit themselves.[54]

Tech “Frenemies”

WSJ Display depicting the many relationships of the Big Four[55]

The Big Four and other large tech companies have grown immensely as evidenced by their numerous antitrust investigations. This pattern of extreme growth is paired with cooperative and competitive practices that these tech companies similarly carry out to grow their respective influence over the market. By operating similar strategies and by forming significant partnerships and competitions with each other, a unique relationship is formed with the Big Four and Big Tech where each company has numerous love-hate relationships corresponding to different business ventures.

Notable Practices, Partnerships, Competitions

Big Four Company Acquisitions

Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have all ventured into new businesses and battlefronts through acquiring smaller companies to jumpstart their growth and reliance on other platforms. Examples include Apple removing Intel computer chips from their MacBook line in favor of their own, [56] Facebook acquiring Instagram, and Amazon acquiring This practice is commonplace for all Big Four companies and is constantly defended by them, as Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated when he defended Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in response to antitrust accusations of “buying out competition.” [57] Every Big Four company carries out acquisitions and frequently defends this practice.

Apple and Google Search Engine

In late 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a long expected lawsuit accusing Google of misusing their power in an anticompetitive manner. [58] The lawsuit highlighted the partnership that Apple and Google made many years prior that made Google the default search engine for Apple mobile devices. The partnership greatly benefits both parties as Apple is handsomely financially compensated while Google receives colossal internet traffic to their platform. [58]

Spotify vs. Apple

The homepage of Spotify's "Play Fair" website, a pillar of its public campaign against Apple.

In 2019, music streaming service Spotify filed an antitrust complaint through the European Union against Apple, which competes directly with Spotify through Apple Music. The suit alleged that App Store policies, specifically the 30 percent cut of all revenue taken by Apple. Spotify claimed that the App Store ecosystem was designed to inhibit competitors, since this steep “tax” forced Spotify and others to artificially increase their prices. Additionally, Apple’s prevention of outside services being compatible with “experience-enhancing upgrades” such as Siri compatibility allegedly prevented competition unfairly. This suit marked the first antitrust suit against the App Store through the EU. As of 2020, the case is ongoing. [59]

Application Marketplace

App platforms are commonly used for regular consumers to access software over the internet. Apple and Google collectively own and operate the two largest mobile app marketplaces in the world and distribute both their own software as well as other companies’ in the Big Four. [55] However, Facebook has notably expressed disdain over Apple’s marketplace fees, publicly shaming their practices. The Wall Street Journal cites a source claiming that Mark Zuckerberg privately claimed to have wanted to “inflict pain” onto Apple for treating his company so poorly.[60]

News Aggregation

Popular Cloud Computing Services of the Big Four[61]

All companies in the Big Four are focused on their own individual news platforms and are competitors to each other over internet traffic to their platform. Notably, Microsoft and Google have publicly denounced each other’s platforms in an instance where Microsoft suggested that Google could do better to support news organizations. Google responded by accusing Microsoft of specifically lobbying for regulations that only benefited their own interests. [62]

Cloud Computing

Amazon Web Services, owned by Amazon, remains the biggest player in cloud computing. However, Google has established Google Cloud Platform (GCP) to rival Amazon in this space. Meanwhile, both Apple and Facebook host a majority of their services on a combination of Amazon and Google’s cloud services. [55]


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