Singapore, SINGAPORE – While all the attention has been on how the world of finance would be disrupted by cryptocurrencies, the 800-pound gorilla in the room has been moving unnoticed. With companies such as Amazon dominating everything from the way we shop, to the way we are entertained and the very fabric of the internet (via Amazon Web Services), it would make sense that the tech juggernaut would sweep in on the last remaining bastion of our lives — finance. And in this regard, Amazon is not alone. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple have been expanding into payments and other financial services as the tech companies become even more dominant than ever in all aspects of our modern lives.
If the banks of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 were too big to fail, imagine if these banks also controlled the way we access the internet, interface with information, consume goods, services and information AND our financial lives as well. And because companies like Amazon also have copious amounts of data on our purchasing behavior, they have an outsized advantage in the realm of financial services. Whereas a bank may know our financial transactions and our incomes, companies such as Amazon know how we spend our money and our most intimate purchases. Just as a private investigator can determine their target’s lifestyle by rummaging through our trash, Amazon can know (unnervingly) whether or not we’re pregnant or about to become so. Such intimate details and information and the datascape that we provide tech companies is the price that we pay for convenience, but once big tech companies control our access to financial services — then the last shoe would finally have dropped. Combining our social media profiles as well as our detailed spending behavior, tech companies, even more so than banks and other financial institutions, can create to a frighteningly accurate degree our fiscal makeup — allowing them to price and evaluate our creditworthiness on an unprecedented scale. With superior access to data, the actuarial models of these tech companies would give them a massive advantage over legacy financial institutions. Already in China, Alibaba and Tencent have taken a dominant share in their country’s retail payment markets.
But tech companies don’t just threaten dominance in retail payments and customer data, they also control one of the most important assets of a bank — data. Banks use big tech such as Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud to store customer account data and banking systems.
Besides the obvious cybersecurity risks, the centralization of so much data and power in the hands of Amazon, Google and Microsoft, which are the three companies which dominate cloud provision, there is also the lack of oversight. If ever there was a need for decentralization in financial services, that need is here and now.
Companies such as Facebook have already demonstrated that they are unable (and in some cases unwilling) to secure user data. Facebook has lost (or sold) user data, affecting millions of its users. And with so much information concentrated in the hands of just a few companies, there is a case to be made not for breaking them up, but for decentralizing their use cases via the blockchain.
Because of the versatility of the blockchain, all of the aspects of centralization which big tech represents can be decentralized to user bases. Companies like Steemit, which is a community-led decentralized social media company could help to reinvent the way we interact with each other. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin could decentralize our relationships with banks and how we store and transfer value. EOS could re-imagine how we think about cloud services and Ethereum, already the de-facto protocol for initial coin offerings (ICOs) could change how companies raise finance (instead of relying on fee-hungry investment banks) as well as manage contracts. For every centralized example that currently exists, the blockchain represents an opportunity to adopt a decentralized equivalent. Because the alternative, which is to accept the status quo and sit idly as tech companies come to dominate every single aspect of our lives, from purchases to payments, buying to banking, may be crossing the Rubicon.
The writer is Patrick Tan, Partner and General Counsel for cryptocurrency quant trading firm Compton Hughes.