Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion: The year that the Big-Tech bubble crashed into the political bubble

What makes this clash monumental is that some Big Tech firms now have the clout of a medium-sized country

Last week, I wrote of the hearings at which Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer, was grilled by members of the US Congress. In that column, I also wrote about the rise of anti-Big-Tech activism from many new quarters, one of them being the “Trojan Horse" of self-righteous employees within Big Tech itself.

This led to an exchange with Paul Schmidt, an old friend, who was once a “top gun" F-15 fighter pilot in the US Air Force and is now a renowned technology consultant. Schmidt had read my column and remarked that the white-collar social activists I spoke of have themselves contributed to what he calls the “Big Tech devastation" of the cities they inhabit. He pointed to San Francisco and Seattle, both once beautiful cities that are now overrun with homelessness and unlivable downtown conditions. Big Tech’s overpaid employees have led a bidding war to drive up housing prices in these cities and have contributed in other ways to edging out non-tech employment, except for the food delivery runners, taxi drivers and office cleaning personnel who linger on to serve their techie masters. In my own experience, while in downtown San Francisco earlier this year, it seemed to me that anybody outside this circle of the served and their servers appears to be either homeless or hopelessly addicted to drugs; sometimes both.

As an aside, my thoughts turned to Bengaluru and other Indian cities that have suffered as a result of the earlier tech boom in outsourced services, though not in quite the same way as San Francisco and Seattle. In an earlier column, I pointed out that outsourcing tech companies that have operations in Indian cities have to bear a lot of the blame—and pay the costs—for restoring some semblance of livability to these cities, rather than conveniently placing the blame solely at the government’s doorstep.

Given the decline in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, Schmidt finds it hypocritical that Big Tech employees are turning “activist". He notes that while Big Tech is happy to experiment with building a censored search engine for China or to place private data there to track “internal enemies", it is against doing anything to help its own government in the US in attempts to curtail its reach through legislation.

Unfortunately, the Silicon Valley “bubble" is getting a big dose of the real world, or at least a dose of another “bubble" that has long been existent outside the Valley. This is the bubble that in Europe, resides in Brussels, and in the US, resides inside the “Beltway" or the ring road that encircles Washington, DC. One bubble is a tech echo-chamber and the others are political echo-chambers. Now that these bubbles are colliding, they find that they are not very compatible. What makes this clash of bubbles monumental is that some Big Tech firms have the clout of a medium-sized country and revenues that exceed the gross domestic product (GDP) of many.

A moment’s refection shows that 2018 has indeed been the year when the governmental comeuppance for Big Tech started. Facebook has faced a string of woes, which started with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Last week, two more problems hit the beleaguered social media giant. One was a reported breach of personal data from millions of its user accounts, soon followed by an exposé in the The New York Times, which evidently showed that Facebook had been continuing to provide sensitive personal data from its users to other Big Tech firms. This despite its apologies over the Cambridge Analytica affair and hand-on-heart promises to never let it happen again. As far as Google is concerned, Pichai’s appearance last week in front of the US Congress is just the beginning of that government’s efforts to rein in the tech giant.

During 2018, the bubble of tech has been colliding with other governmental bubbles too. The Europeans passed their General Data Protection Regulations and put them into effect this year, handing back the ownership rights over personal data to the individual. This shift has caused much friction in the tech world, with the real threat of billions of dollars in fines being imposed on Big Tech firms for flouting these norms.

In India, Facebook-owned WhatsApp is coming under increasing pressure from the government to step up and take more accountability for the spread of “false news" that has sometimes led to violence. The government believes, rightly, that the veil of “user privacy" should be lifted, and people who encourage violence by propagating doctored videos of horrendous events that have occurred elsewhere in the world and labelling them as Indian should be caught and prosecuted.

Like the Roman god Janus, after whom January is named, Big Tech is two-faced; when asked for transparency from governments, it cries “user privacy", but is willing to compromise that same privacy when revenue is involved, whether by entering China or giving data to other firms. One hopes that the new year might bring rationality into how Big Tech is regulated the world over.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India

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