Few of us who survived the past year are not grateful for technology.
Zooming, emails, connected workplaces, and strong internet connections at home have made it possible to work, shop, study, and live our lives in ways that would not have been possible if the pandemic had struck, say 20 years earlier.
But there are parts of big tech – the parts that follow us around and make us think about dangerous and antisocial things just to keep us clicking – do us tremendous damage.
While it may seem like we can’t have the best of both worlds – connectivity without the damage – I think we can. But we’re going to have to change the way we think about big tech.
The first thing is to recognize that great technology is inherently weak. Yes, weak. The second is that he only got strong each time we let him.
By “big tech” I mean Facebook and Google and related companies such as Instagram and YouTube (owned by Facebook and Google, respectively).
The companies that preceded them were indeed weak in the sense that they did not have a guaranteed future. Think back to Netscape, My space, MSN and all those other montholiths we were told at the time would become natural monopolies.
Terrified of losing his advantage
Much of the behavior revealed by the Facebook whistleblower Francoise Haugen last month was a market leader terrified of losing his edge.
He hijacked what he was showing from the news into articles that inflamed and enraged people in 2018, with “unhealthy side effects on significant slices of public content” in part because users had started interacting less with him.
Facebook knew that “we make body image problems worse,” in the words of one of its memos, but hasn’t really changed how Instagram works. Part of the reason is that teens spent 50% more time on Instagram than on Facebook. Instagram looked like the future.
When engagement on Instagram started to wane, Facebook made plans to Kids Instagram, viewing pre-teens as “a valuable but untapped audience”.
It doesn’t sound like the actions of a confident company to stay on top.
And neither did his initial purchase Instagram in 2012, when he could have launched his own mobile photo-sharing service, taking advantage of everything he had.
Facebook also bought WhatsApp in 2014, because its own messaging platform, Messenger, was losing ground.
It couldn’t grow that big on its own, because when businesses grow beyond a certain size, they get slow, bureaucratic.
These are the actions of a starving company, but not a company that is extremely sure to stay on top.
Australian scholar Stephen King, former member of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and current commissioner of its Productivity Commission, says we need to apply stricter special rules to takeovers by companies like Google and Facebook.
Big Tech Grows Through Acquisitions
Usually we only block takeovers when the target is large. Instagram and WhatsApp were small. Instagram would have 13 full-time employees at the time of its takeover, WhatsApp numbered 55. Yet Facebook has paid billions for them.
In the US and UK, both takeovers were canceled.
Big tech companies can do things with tiny buyout targets, others can’t. Takeovers can give them access to vast networks of existing users and their data.
As King says, Instagram is great because it was acquired by Facebook, not because Instagram was necessarily the best target.
Read more: We made Facebook grow by worrying about the wrong thing
In Europe, authorities looked into this possibility and did not approve the takeover of WhatsApp until after Facebook informed them that it would be “unable to establish a reliable automated correspondence between the accounts of Facebook users and the users. WhatsApp user accounts ”.
This statement was incorrect, Facebook did it and paid the European Commission 110 million euros for providing incorrect or misleading information.
If Australia had been tougher, if the US, UK and the European Commission had been tougher, Facebook and Google would have nothing to do with the behemoths they have become today. They could have peaked and lost market share.
We are able to say no
Their future is largely in our hands. For large tech companies capable of using the weight of their networks (and only for those companies), we might “just say no” to acquisitions. It is difficult to find a reason to continue.
If necessary, we could modify the law to make “no” the default.
It wouldn’t cut businesses in a hurry. Most of the users of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the like are locked in because that’s where their friends are.
Read more: Is it even possible to regulate Facebook effectively? Time and time again, attempts have yielded the same result
But where the friends are changes with each generation.
Facebook and Google know this, which is why they are so keen to take over entry-level competitors and emerging platforms in areas they haven’t thought of.
If we stopped them, we wouldn’t stop them from growing right away, but we would make it difficult for them to fight the natural order in which the new and the fashionable replaces the old and the predictable. It is their deepest fear.