Opinion | Behind the masks of contrition worn recently by Big Tech chiefs3 min read . Updated: 06 Aug 2020, 09:06 PM IST
The four technology companies under scrutiny in the US are smart enough to transform themselves
Last week, $5 trillion strode into the US Congress. That they did so virtually, through technology that some of them helped create, was perhaps an ironic coincidence. Google’s Sundar Pichai, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg represented Big Tech, and their companies were worth a total of about $5 trillion, the size of Japan’s economy. While members of Congress were masked, the Tech Titans seemed to wear masks of contrition.
Just a few years back, these men (and they are almost always men) could do no wrong. They were the new idols, creators of new technologies and untold wealth. Their companies and campuses were the new wonders of the world, and it was the tools they were building that would enrich our lives and save our planet; even take us to other planets.
A few years later, while a large part of the adulation remains, their sheen is rapidly wearing off. Google is accused of monopolizing all of search globally, stifling competition as well as small merchants, and suffocating publishers. Amazon is seen as an apex predator, monopolizing e-commerce and driving small retailers into the ground. Apple makes most of the devices Americans use, and is a single, monopolistic gateway to the apps that power them. Facebook is perhaps the most reviled—for allegedly fuelling hate speech, ruining newspapers, swallowing startups that threaten it, and even swinging the US elections and the UK Brexit vote.
There are many reasons for this tech-lash. Monopoly power is one of them. The US antitrust laws were created more than a century ago to break the oil and steel monopolies Esso and US Steel. The basic idea of those laws was to keep producers from using their monopoly power to jack up consumer prices. This is where US regulators ran into a conceptual difficulty with tech giants. Their products were either free, or (in the case of Amazon) extremely cheap, and therefore presumably serving consumers well. The other reason for the backlash has been the use, or misuse, of data—the fact that many of these companies are making money off the free information we voluntarily give them. This data is sliced, diced, massaged and sold to advertisers for gobs of money, with the consumer getting nothing. This is the primarily business model of Google and Facebook, and its dangers were highlighted starkly by the Cambridge Analytica scandal; this firm had used the Facebook data of millions of Americans to influence the 2016 presidential polls. Then, there is also the onslaught of fake news, the amplification of hate speech, and the concentration of unimaginable wealth in the hands of a few. While the companies are still hugely admired, a citizen backlash has only just begun. And, predictably, politicians and regulators have started taking note.
The EU was first off the block with its General Data Protection Regulations, which prioritized consumer privacy. In the US, in response to a clamour to break Big Tech up, members of its antitrust subcommittee realized that while these firms might not raise user prices, their practices could lower the quality of products (on privacy, for example). Facebook and Twitter have been forced to hire thousands of people to weed out the hate spewed on their networks. Amazon is under scrutiny across the world, including India, for being anti-competitive to small traders. “Facebook suicide", or getting off the network, has become common among people who do not want to be chased across the virtual world by marketers and spammers.
These companies started as forces for good, created by idealistic founders who wanted to change the world for the better. Google promised never “to be evil", Zuckerberg wanted to connect people across the world, Jeff Bezos wanted to deliver stuff at low prices. Along the way, they grew big, and needed ever more money to fuel their ambitions. All of them went public, investors clamoured for stratospheric growth every quarter to maintain their insane valuations, and idealism gave way to capitalism. Creating cool technology took second place to ratcheting up the financial rewards for investors, employees and themselves, it seems.
I do believe, however, that these companies are smart enough to learn from this impasse and transform themselves. They do not have far to look. Just two decades ago, one of them was accused of monopoly, fought the battle, changed itself, and emerged ever stronger. It is still highly valued today, far better respected, and was not a part of the $5 trillion that beamed into the US Congress last week. That company is called Microsoft.
Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and co-founder of Unqbe