Is Big Tech Finally Being Reined In?

We tend to think of history, of human progress, as linear. We get better. We become more advanced. Companies get bigger, richer, more sophisticated. Things usually advance in one direction. Athletes get better. Empires conquer more territory. Until they don’t. Until they are stopped and pushed back. Well, this last year, and especially the last couple of months, might be showing us that the meteoric rise and takeover of Big Tech might finally start to be reined in.

Avery Hartmans at Business Insider wrote a great piece:

“Big Tech is under attack from every angle as governments, employees and consumers come to grips with the industry’s concentration of power”. Its worth a read, but I’ll try to capture the key points she makes.

After what seemed like the upward rise of Big Tech, governments around the world seem to be finally cracking down, employees are forming unions and consumers are being more distrustful.

It seems Big Tech is finally being reined in, or is undergoing a “reckoning of sorts” as Hartmans describes it, as the world has finally come to understand the power and influence these corporations hold over every aspect of our lives. Such actions being taken are already and will have a major affect on the industry. For years, the story we were told was the good this would provide our societies and our lives, only to later learn of the “dark side” of Big Tech — such as gathering all of our data to build more products, or to market to us, or to quash competition or bully the market. No more, it seems.

Recently, she points out the CEOs of the big 4 — Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google — were called to testify before the US Congress over anti-competitive practices and possible censorship of conservative views. The Justice Department filed a massive and important anti-trust suit against Google, as did a collection of dozens of states.

And this pressure, Hartmans notes, seems to be bi-partisan. In Maryland there will now be a new tax on revenue from digital ads sold by Big Tech, and the Arizona House of Representatives passed a bill to allow app developers to use their own payment systems, avoiding the hefty fees imposed by Google or Apple on their app stores.

Most recently, the White House appointed law professor and known critic of Big Tech, Tim Wu, to a spot on the National Economic Council. And let’s not forget the efforts to repeal section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which basically protects social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) from any liability for what happens on their platforms. In general, the issue of misinformation and disinformation running amok on social media would and should be atop the tech priority for this new administration.

Beyond the US, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers would be considered employees while the Australian parliament passed a law (that I have written about in this blog) that will require Google and Facebook to pay publishers for their content.

Public pressure is also having an effect as the social media and big tech companies seek out better and often more creative ways to respond to the public frustration. Indeed, the coming together of consumers, civil society organizations and activists seems to be having its effect. Hartmans points to two Pew surveys taken recently, showing Americans having much more negative and skeptical views of Big Tech than they did in previous years. One of these surveys found that 72% of adults in the US believed that social media companies had too much power and influence in politics and should be better regulated by government. ,

There is also greater consumer awareness, she writes, as to how the companies are using information, our information, to their benefit. Apple will soon allow users to prefer not having their data used for commercial reasons. Whatsapp, now owned by Facebook, saw many of its users leave for other more secure apps when it came out that Facebook would be getting and making use of user data. a with fb — many switched to Signal and other apps.

Lastly, employees themselves are taking a bigger and more active role. Only this January, 200 Google employees came together to form a workers’ union. Amazon workers are protesting covid working conditions.

I’ll be honest. After the past year or two, I had begun to become overly concerned about the out sized influence of Big Tech and the social media platforms that have become ingrained in our lives. It had seemed that Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple, just to name the big 4, had literally gotten so big that they were more powerful than our elected governments. However, Australia’s move to require Google and Facebook to pay media publishers seemed like the beginning of an important trend, and leave me with some hope.

Big Tech and social media must be in a constant dialogue with the people and their elected officials. There must be some limitations, some antitrust laws. There must be some accountability for who uses the platforms and what they say. Its important to remember. At the end of the day, the power Big Tech has is the power we give it. These various developments remind us that Facebook is meaningless until we give it our attention. If Big Tech is taking the hint and reining itself in, while simultaneously being reined in by government, the consumers and the employees, then its not as difficult to picture a positive outcome and mutually productive relationship between Big Tech and society.

Based in Denver, Casey covers tech, the tech industry, and society in the United States. Stories and inquiries at: osbournecasey@gmail.com