For years, the big internet companies have employed a simple argument to brush off fears that their growing influence and position in our daily lives amount to monopoly.

Because their services are online and provided for free, they say, their dominant market shares cannot be compared to those enjoyed by railway or oil giants of decades past. Unlike tycoons such as John Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, the new barons - Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page - are successful not because there are no alternatives, but merely because consumers choose them over the many alternatives.

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