Are we starting to fall out of love with the big tech companies? Is the loss of our privacy too big a price to pay for the convenience of Amazon and Facebook? National governments are certainly taking action, introducing new legislation and backing it up with punitive fines. The techlash has begun: but how will it end?
Techlash. If you have not yet heard the term, you will. So let us start with the definition: what is it?
Simply put it is a term coined by The Economist that describes a growing backlash against the big tech companies – Alphabet (Google’s parent), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. The revolt against these companies is coming from two sides: the public, who fear a loss of privacy, and national governments, worried about a loss of power.
Increasingly these ‘big five’ companies are shaping our lives. Right now it is just after 7 am on Monday morning. So far today I have been woken up by my iPhone (Apple), bought some flea spray for the dog (Amazon), wished someone happy birthday (Facebook), done some research for this article on Google and I am writing it in Microsoft Word. The only other company I have interacted with is Yorkshire Tea…
But the convenience of being able to order flea spray in my pyjamas – and everything else I have done – comes at a price. And like millions of other people, I feel vaguely uneasy that the price is my privacy. Some of you will have seen Emma Watson in The Circle – a vision of the future where personal privacy has all but disappeared.
Are the tech giants moving in that direction? Clearly, they are taking policy positions, most notably against Donald Trump: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that to openly voice support for the President is to effectively end your career in Silicon Valley.
And so it begins…
This is where the techlash begins: people see Facebook as somewhere to connect, Google as a search engine – not as companies looking to shape your opinion and tell you what news you should watch and what views you should hold. Americans, in particular, fiercely value their freedoms. If they want the right to bear arms, they most certainly want the right to browse freely.
But the real backlash against the tech giants is coming from governments. Why? Maybe the numbers give us a clue. In recent weeks the big five tech companies have published quarterly results which put their combined revenues at $143bn (just over £100bn). Those revenues were for three months – multiply by four and you get total revenues of nearly $600bn for a full year. And if you are now thinking, ‘that must be more than some countries,’ you would be right. In 2015 the GDP of Argentina was $584bn – and the revenues of the big five dwarf the GDP of some smaller countries. More of that later…
Will governments shoot the messenger?
Tech companies – and especially internet platforms – have traditionally been treated as intermediaries. They supply you with the content that someone else produces. But now governments in America and Europe are starting to hold them responsible for what users say and do. Right now Germany is the most striking example, with a new law requiring that social media platforms take down hate speech, fake news and illegal material within 24 hours – or face fines of up to €50m (£44m).
The tech companies have argued that it will be almost impossible to filter and check posts in such a short time-frame, but governments are not going to waste a chance to re-assert control. UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd has already warned that firms must do more to block extremist content or face increased legislation, whilst former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon wanted to regulate Facebook and Google as utilities – much like the water and electricity companies.
What about automation?
We have written previously about automation, which big tech already embracing. One report estimates that by 2030 it may have taken 800m jobs. Right now our politicians seem to be ignoring the issues – what will we do with all the unemployed people and what about tax? Robots do not pay tax – Bill Gates is suggesting that they should, but if you are a politician, why worry about 2030? In the UK there will have been at least two General Elections by then. ‘2030? Good Lord, old boy, I’ll be retired and writing my memoirs by then.’
It seems a fair bet though – given the mood among current governments – that our leaders in 2030 will suddenly wake up, realise that automation has happened and decide it was all the fault of the tech giants.
And then there is tax…
The small amount of tax that the tech giants pay is legendary, as they set up companies in low taxcountries andd funnel profits to wherever is most beneficial. US Trade Secretary Steven Mnuchin is threatening action against Amazon, while not a Budget speech goes by in the UK without the Chancellor announcing yet another new initiative to tackle tax avoidance by the big tech companies. No wonder fines are so popular, with the EU fining Google €2.4bn in June last year for ‘abusing its monopoly position.’
What do we want?
As consumers, what we want is simple. We want all the convenience of the internet without any of the drawbacks. We want the tech giants to continue innovating and continue to offer us better products. We would like them to do this without interfering in our lives: without telling us what to think or dictating what we can and cannot watch or listen to. Or suggesting who we should vote for. Governments? We simply want them out of our lives: we definitely do not want them interfering in what we do online.
I am sorry, it ain’t gonna happen. The techlash will intensify as governments seek more control: the big tech companies will fight back. You and I might well be caught in the crossfire…
So how will the tech companies fight back?
Fortunately, I have been given an early preview of the new ‘predict-the-future’ tool. This is the first product released by the big five tech companies working together and using their combined algorithms and databases. The new Cassandra app has just read me a newspaper report from the year 2030.
It has been confirmed this morning that Greece has overtaken the UK to become the sixth largest economy in the world. This marks a remarkable rise for the country, which was bought by the ‘big five’ tech companies in 2020 when it defaulted on its debt for the 14th time.
The new owners of Greece wasted no time in taking the country out of the EU. The tech giants’ revenues allowed them to restore the cuts to pensions and public services which previous Greek governments had been forced to make and a decision to cut the Greek rate of corporation tax to zero for ‘specially selected’ companies soon had investors and entrepreneurs flocking to Athens. “The climate is as good as California,” said President Zuckerberg. “We should have bought our own country years ago…”
More than 1,000 of America’s leading tech companies have now left the US for ‘Silicon Sparta’ and rumours persist that Greece 2.0 will shortly buy an American subsidiary, with Venezuela mentioned as the frontrunner…