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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Big tech has a big problem, which means we all do

Is it now time for Facebook, Twitter, Uber et al to be more heavily regulated? 

The backlash against the digital frontiersmen of our times hasn’t yet overtaken ordinary consumers. Ritchie Tongo / EPA
The backlash against the digital frontiersmen of our times hasn’t yet overtaken ordinary consumers. Ritchie Tongo / EPA

Some are calling it a techlash. In the US, both the populist right and the populist left of the political spectrum are calling for big tech to be regulated. This includes essential public utilities, such as electricity or water. And some tech titans, not least Facebook and Uber, are no longer shrugging off the push for greater accountability and rule-bound behaviour.

Is change in the air and will it alter the rules of engagement for the way we live today, both in the real world and virtually? Will change limit free interaction on social media, internet searches for anything and everything and online shopping deals?

Not so fast. The backlash against the digital frontiersmen of our times hasn’t yet overtaken ordinary consumers, most of whom continue to like Facebook, Gmail, Google and Twitter because they’re free and functional. Amazon has dominated the market in e-commerce with its two-hour shipping, Prime services and demonstrable ability to get almost anything to anyone’s door sharpish. And despite torrents of bad press, Uber has managed to brand its product (quick, affordable rides from anywhere to anywhere). Some 55 million people in 574 cities are now estimated to use Uber every month.

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Even so, big tech appears due for an overhaul and companies, themselves, seem to be sensing the inevitable. Consider this: Facebook has agreed to US legislators’ request for more transparency about paid political advertisements that appear to be linked to Russian-controlled accounts, which ran on the social media site during the 2016 presidential election.

Today, Twitter will tell the US senate intelligence committee investigating Russian interference in the election about bot accounts and the widespread dissemination of misinformation on its platform.

And Uber, which may be on the verge of losing London, its biggest European market, might have to comply with some of the pesky regulations it has so far profited from ignoring.

It might seem that big tech is being forced out of virtual reality and into the rules of the real world, but the situation is more complex.

First, what is big tech, anyway? We tend to see the successful tech companies of our day – Facebook, Apple, Uber, Google, Amazon and Twitter – as one sector even though they are not in the same business, do quite different things and charge very differently (or not at all) for goods and services. Uber and, to some extent, Amazon, could be seen as digital disruptors, but Facebook, Google and Twitter are better categorised as pioneers. And Apple is a hybrid, or a tech manufacturer that also invests in innovative software and processes.

The blurred, catch-all “big tech” throws up the second, key question. If they’re not all the same, how does one regulate them at one fell swoop? Obviously, one can’t, but each tech company could be required to comply with the rules that bind the conduct of real-world counterparts. For instance, it is a nonsense for Facebook to argue that it is just a technology company and, therefore, not responsible for the content it carries.

In the US, the Communications Decency Act should apply to Facebook, and in other countries, the statute’s equivalent. So, too, Uber and its claim to being no more than an “information society service” and, therefore, exempt from the regulations that apply to conventional transport businesses.

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Third, what does the new mood to tame big tech really mean? According to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, it is about handing off the responsibility of self-monitoring to networks like Facebook. "The platforms, generally, absolutely, have to be more aggressive,” Mr Bloomberg recently said, suggesting they should be like banks that are required by law to prevent money laundering.

But there are others who suggest more hard-edged measures. Jonathan Taplin of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab believes the taming should be more decisive and crush the tech companies’ great and terrible power. In his new book, Move Fast and Break Things, Taplin points to a study that found Google could manipulate its search results to sway between 20 per cent and 80 per cent of undecided US voters. He argues that because more than 60 per cent of online book sales have, at times, gone through Amazon, the retailer’s decision not to carry any one title can have a profound effect on its prospects or on the dissemination of ideas therein.

That America’s five biggest tech companies – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft – have a total market value of US$3 trillion (Dh11 trillion), dominate the internet and thereby exert huge economic, social and political clout, is not reason enough to break them up ... or break their spirit. But the fact that many of them are increasingly caught up in controversies around fake news, the spread of social disaffection and hateful ideologies, as well as the trading of personal data for ad revenue, indicates that regulation is needed.

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