What are the problems with Big Tech?

21.50, Monday 29 Jun 2020 Link to this post

There are increasing calls to break up, tax, regulate or [other intervention here] Big Tech. What I’m curious about is what for.

To be clear, I have no position on whether these are valid complaints. For now I’m just collecting them.

Running through some of the stated problems with Big Tech

Tim Bray recently suggested breaking up Google into separate firms for ads, maps, Android, etc. Here’s the central rationale:

For many years, the astonishing torrent of money thrown off by Google’s Web-search monopoly has fueled invasions of multiple other segments, enabling Google to bat aside rivals who might have brought better experiences to billions of lives.

File under: market distortion.

Here’s another.

The French government has proposed a 3% “digital tax” on Big Tech revenues. It’s not yet implemented, pending negotiations to make the tax multinational. Two stated reasons for the tax are hate speech, and the consequences of unpoliced hate speech:

[Cédric O, the French junior minister for digital affairs] said addressing online hate speech was also key. “Hate speech is a global public health problem,” he warned. “The rise in online hate speech creates a major difficulty for public powers: we don’t know how to protect our citizens online in the same way we protect them in real life. If I threatened to kill you or your children in the street, I’d face police. But that doesn’t exist online. It’s both a public health issue and a problem for democracy, because if people think we can’t protect them, they will vote for others who they think – rightly or wrongly – can protect them.”

There’s some nuance here. Policing does exist online – it’s called moderation. The problem is that what France wants to police is different from what Facebook wants to police. It’s not integrated with non-Facebook issue. It’s out of step with local values. And there’s nothing France can do to fix it.

(Aside: I admire the public health framing because it says that Big Tech can be good for individuals, but it dumps some unwanted externalities on society which have to be accounted for. So the digital tax has the same logic as the accepted levies on cigs, booze, and gambling – all of which are the spice of life but definitely have their downsides.)

Another!

Here’s Tom Loosemore on the decision by Apple and Google to build frameworks for a particular kind of Covid-19 contact tracing into iPhones and Android phones, and then refusing to cooperate with governments on anything different from that model:

I’ll admit I was instinctively pleased when I heard of Google and Apple’s decision. Throughout my career, I’ve defended people’s privacy from your typical state’s propensity to collect ever more data about their citizens, often without reason.

But in the weeks since April 10, I’ve reflected more on the nature of power. Who has power? And how is it held to account?

What Google and Apple did on April 10 was to make a huge, global public health policy decision – a decision that I believe should be the preserve of elected governments.

File under: Big Tech is extranational. Undemocratic.

I can think of two other categories of issues people bring up about Big Tech.

First, it has a tendency to be dangerous. Off the top of my head, here are some recent-ish issues to have hit the media:

  • Rumours spread on WhatsApp have triggered lynchings in India.
  • Uber in London insufficiently vets drivers, and hasn’t been reporting sexual assaults to police.
  • Amazon has not been maintaining safety regulations for children’s toys.
  • reddit has been an easy meeting place for far-right groups and people exchanging underage pornography.
  • Twitter has normalised far-right discourse, and helped polarise communities along political lines.
  • Airbnb facilitates residential property owners circumventing hostelry regulations meant for safety and neighbourliness.
  • Gig economy startups sidestep employment law to load corporate risk on workers with no security.

Secondly, Big Tech tends not to pay its fair share in tax.

In the UK: In 2018, Facebook paid £8m tax on £1.27bn revenue. In 2019, Apple paid £3.8m on £1.2bn retail sales. Etc. Too low.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, the impression is that it’s unfair. Big Tech has a market at all in the UK because there is a good level of education, and a wealthy economy supported by good national infrastructure – all paid for by the state. That’s what taxes are for (in part), but the firms benefitting aren’t making their fair contribution.

At a much smaller scale, it always seems pretty odd to me that I run my business using online software and paying for servers that are priced in pounds, but those same services don’t collect VAT because they’re not actually based in the UK. But… they do operate here, otherwise I couldn’t use them? My gut says that’s not ok.

Why catalogue the grievances?

To summarise the stated problems society has with Big Tech:

  1. The market would have better products without them
  2. They enact values which do not represent the national values where they operate
  3. Decisions have no democratic oversight (or rather: decisions can be at government scale but without government involvement)
  4. They’re dangerous, or produce public health issues
  5. Their tax contribution is unfairly low
  6. Power

I’ve added that sixth one: power. And threat. The massive user base and extranational nature of Big Tech gives these firms a power which must terrify national governments. Could you, as a government, effectively regulate Amazon or Apple if that meant they might pull out of your country? Of course not. There would be uproar. Big Tech has produced a kind of internationalist, corporate, non-national loyalty which could be seen as a real threat by nation states.

These problems haven’t been levelled only at Big Tech – international capitalism is getting a shoeing of late, generally speaking. But Big Tech is the focus.

(If there are other categories I’ve missed, please send me links.)

I’m collecting these stated issues because there are a lot of suggested courses of action: digital taxes; breaking companies up; preventing companies from selling products in their own marketplaces, and so on and so forth.

But what I haven’t seen when these suggestions are made is

  1. A statement of which issue is to be addressed
  2. An analysis of the issue, breaking it down into underlying causes
  3. A hypothesis of how the proposed remedy will be effective
  4. Consequence scanning for undesirable side-effects.

Without knowing what an intervention is intended to achieve and how it’s impossible to judge it. Is it good or is it bad? Will it be effective or ineffective? Is it likely to work or not? How does it stack up against alternatives? Who knows.

Like: the French digital tax. The UK has a 2% digital tax on the way too (though it has been postponed). Will it fix what it intends to fix? How? If not, will it compensate for the stated harm? How will we tell? Will it exacerbate any of the other issues? Will it introduce any other problems? Maybe I’m doing my reading in the wrong places, but (except for France’s admirable but partial “public health” framing) these questions haven’t been part of the discourse. And all of this without even agreeing the nature of the problem in the first place. It’s poor policy.

One final caveat

I’m cautiously saying stated issues because I don’t want to make a judgement here about issues, scale, causes, or fault.

Big Tech has been very good to me personally, and I happen to believe it is (and has been) generally speaking a huge public good too. Yet there are problems, and people I respect have convincingly argued that there are very serious problems.

So that’s why I’m collecting my thoughts like this.