Who will take on the behemoths of Big Tech?

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

With Britain having gone through its third general election in four years, the halcyon days of Cleggmania in the 2010 campaign seem like an impossibly innocent time. Particularly since Sir Nick Clegg, once the shining, soft-haired hope of sensible centrists, now works as a PR man for Facebook. His job is to explain to the unwashed masses why Facebook’s refusal to do anything about false political adverts is actually good for democracy.

Few people believe that any more, but Clegg’s sorry purchase as a useful idiot for the techno-disinformation complex is a vivid illustration of the way that, as this excellent book forensically demonstrates, the big Silicon Valley companies have succeeded in regulatory capture of the US branches of government that ought to oversee them, as well as more generally in ‘cognitive capture’ of the public conversation about the changes they are forcing upon the world.

Google is the single biggest political lobbyist in the US, but also sprays money at the academics who study internet law and culture, and who — as though coincidentally — come up with theories friendly to Google. Google and its corporate comrades have also, Rana Foroohar shows, succeeded in weakening patent-protection laws, which is good for them — because their business depends on copying the ideas of new startups — but bad for everyone else. Many experts quoted here say the result has been to stifle innovation, not only in the computer industry but in fields such as biotech as well.

Indeed, though bookshop shelves are groaning with excitable trade books about how the pace of change in modern life is unprecedented, very little has changed technologically in more than a decade. Smartphones are still basically the same devices as the first iPhone in 2007, and Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are still the entrenched incumbents, while newer tech ‘unicorns’ are falling by the wayside: witness the abandoned IPO this summer of the office-rental company WeWork.

The dominance of these few companies, Foroohar shows in her engaging narrative, has been bought with utter ruthlessness and a deep understanding of both the ‘network effect’ (whereby the more users a service attracts, the more attractive it becomes to even more users), and the psychology of addiction, employing behavioural-science research to keep our mouths clamped to the troll firehose.

As a global business columnist for the FT, Foroohar is well placed to deepen her account with amusing personal stories and tasty gossip. She was once interviewed for a communications job at Google, which — marvellously — turned out to involve following one of the founders around and turning his thoughts into documents that could be communicated to the rest of the company. And she cites many sources, both named and anonymous, with stories about being screwed over by Big Tech, or about witnessing its leaders’ majestically entitled tech-bro behaviour. (Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, when challenged about sleeping with his female engineers, responded: ‘Why shouldn’t I? They’re my employees.’) ‘Don’t be evil’, of course, used to be the company motto of Google — until it realised that evil, in the form of relentless surveillance and targeted adverts, makes more money.

Foroohar has been around long enough to remember the first dot-com bust in 2000, and she makes a fascinating case here that the next global financial crisis — we are, after all, due another one now, more than a decade after 2008 — will be caused by Big Tech itself. Importantly, she points out that the celebrated ‘cash piles’ the companies are sitting on (Apple’s is $200 billion) are actually held in the form of bonds, so the tiny tech oligopoly has tremendous power to move the markets — or crash them, if things start to go south.

Who, then, shall stand up to these behemoths? In this story, the only entity on the planet with both the power and the will to do so is the European Union, which for that reason is becoming more attractive to new startups in tech and science generally. Foroohar ends her book with some sensible regulatory suggestions, such as taxing tech revenues at source (rather than allowing profits to be repatriated to havens), and perhaps instituting a global ‘digital tax’.

In the meantime, Big Tech’s appetite for evil is so impressive that several more scandals have broken since this book went to press. Google has been secretly amassing the detailed health records of millions of Americans, which might especially alarm users of Fitbit fitness trackers, since Google has also announced its intention to buy that company. Meanwhile, it was recently discovered that Facebook has been accused of watching users through their own smartphone cameras while they browse the website — and if you think that was a bug or an accident, then I have some old shares in that you might want to invest in.

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