Behind the masks of contrition worn recently by Big Tech chiefs

Last week five trillion dollars walked into the US House of 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 made up Big Tech for the world, and their companies totaled a value similar to the $5 trillion GDP of Japan, the third richest country in the world. The Congress women and men were masked, the Tech Titans wore those of contrition and petulance.

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, men who could do no wrong. Their companies and campuses were the new wonders of the world, and it was the technologies they were building that would enrich our lives and save our planet; in fact, even take us to planets other than ours.

A few years later, while a large part of the adulation and admiration remains, the sheen is rapidly wearing off. Google is accused of owning and monopolizing all of Search globally, stifling competition as well as small merchants, and killing the publishing industry. Amazon is seen as an apex predator, monopolizing ecommerce and driving small retailers into the ground. Apple owns a majority of the devices that Americans use, and is a single, monopolistic gateway to the apps that power them. Facebook is perhaps the most reviled – fueling hate speech, decimating 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 tenet behind these laws were that producers do not use their monopoly power to jack up consumer prices. This is where US regulators kept on running into a conceptual difficulty with the Valley tech companies – their products are either free, or (in the case of Amazon) extremely cheap, and therefore presumably a good deal for consumers. The other reason for the backlash has been the use, or misuse, of data – the fact that many of these companies are making money out of free information and data that we voluntarily give them. This data is sliced, diced, massaged and sold to willing advertisers for gobs of money, with the consumer getting nothing. This is primarily Google and Facebook’s business model, and it came out starkly with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where this firm used Facebook data of millions of Americans to influence the 2016 Presidential election. 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 very few. While the companies and the creators continue to be hugely admired, the citizen backlash is beginning. And, predictably, politicians and regulators have started to take note.

The EU was first of the blocks with the General Data Protection Regulation  which prioritized consumer privacy. Responding to the clamour to break them up,the members of the US Antitrust subcommittee realised that while Big Tech monopolies might not always lead to higher prices, they can lead to lower quality products, including when it comes to user privacy. Facebook and Twitter have been forced to hire thousands of people to try weed out the hate spewing from their networks. Amazon is under increasing scrutiny across the world, including India, for being anti-competitive to small traders. Facebook Suicide, or getting of the social network, has become a word, for people who do not want to be chased across the virtual world by marketers and spammers.

I believe that all of 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 create a network to connect people across the world, Jeff Bezos was creating the world’s largest store, with everyday low prices. Somewhere along the way, they became much bigger, 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 which will change the world took second place to ratcheting up stock price to continuously reward investors, employees and, finally, themselves.

I do believe, however, that the companies are smart enough to learn from this impasse and transform themselves. They do not have far to look – two decades back, one of them was accused of monopoly, fought the battle, changed itself, and emerged ever stronger. It is the most highly valued of them today, more respected, and it was not a part of the 5 trillion dollars that beamed on to the court room. That company is called Microsoft.

(This article appeared as an OpEd in Mint on August 6, 2020)

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