It has been quite an extraordinary year for big tech. Giants of the technology sector cannily leveraged the expanding economic opportunities thrown up by the pandemic. But now they find themselves in the crosshairs of regulatory authorities in Europe, America, the UK and China. Will 2020 come to be seen as an inflection point, when traffic lights are finally erected on the digital highway, along with speed bumps, mandatory lay-bys and enforced idling zones? Perhaps.
Around the world, unease about so-called “surveillance capitalism” is throwing up common themes on tech regulation. Mostly, these appear to demand accountability and docility from digital companies, which one senior European official recently described as having grown “too big to care”.
Accordingly, regulators have been busy the past month and it has been pretty brutal for tech companies. In mid-December, the European Commission published drafts of two ambitious pieces of legislation that would force big tech companies to take more responsibility for policing content and to refrain from anticompetitive practices. Transgressors would face heavy fines and the threat of being broken up. Amazon, for instance, might have to pay nearly $30 billion.
Britain followed suit on the same day with proposed laws to fine Facebook, Twitter and TikTok up to 10 per cent of global revenue if they fail to remove and limit the spread of illegal content.
The week before Europe and Britain took aim at digital companies, the US Federal Trade Commission accused Facebook of unfair competition and asked a federal court to break it up. And just days ago, prosecutors in 38 US states and territories accused Google of illegally arranging its search results to push out smaller rivals. This was also the month China levied fines on its own tech leaders Alibaba and Tencent over antitrust violations.
All of this shades a picture – which began to be sketched years ago – of profound governmental mistrust and the alleged malpractice by tech giants. The warning shots were arguably fired back in October, when the US Congress published a lengthy report on how to update competition law and the US Department of Justice subsequently launched a lawsuit against Google over alleged abuses of its monopoly in search advertising. In theory then, Europe’s proposed Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA), are not starting a new debate. They are simply turning up the volume on a long-running one.
Quite so. Consider the reception afforded to Harvard Business School professor emeritus Shoshana Zuboff's 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It explained her premise that tech companies were unilaterally claiming private human experience as raw material for data, which would be computed and "packaged as prediction products". Ms Zuboff's formulation hit a nerve. At the very least, it chimed with the overwrought emotions of people who reported being "swamped with Google and Facebook ads for beds and bedding" right after they purchased a bedroom bundle – a mattress, bed base, pillows and sheets. In the past few years, the netizen has increasingly described the feeling of being hunted down by companies like Facebook and Google that provide free online services. It is not surprising then that governments are paying attention.
Europe’s plans will take years of debate before they become law. But as our networked world goes into its third decade and now that more than half the planet’s population is online, it is worth thinking about what the proposed digital rules might mean.
What do regulators and netizens want to achieve by corralling big tech? And what can tech companies do differently to stay in business while staying in touch with the zeitgeist?
These questions have particular resonance during the coronavirus crisis, when educational institutions have been relying on Google services to teach students during lockdown. In the circumstances, a closure – even partial – of the digital highway may not be a good idea.
By all accounts, that is not on the cards anyway. Instead, regulators across the US, UK and EU are agreed on the need for more digital champions – many small, nimble companies – not just a few big beasts in the tech jungle. Europe’s proposed DMA would ban tech companies from preferential treatment of their own products on their platforms and impose a greater obligation for large firms to share data with smaller companies and to ensure interoperability with their own software and hardware.
European Commission vice president Margrethe Vestager, who presides over the bloc's digital policies, has likened the new proposals to the "first-ever traffic light that brought order in the (online) streets". That is an evocative image. In practice, the new order would mean new community habits and new ways of sharing. Search engines such as Google would need to provide their ranking, query, click and view data to rival search engines such as Qwant, a French firm. In a sense, tech regulation would land squarely along the financial sector, in order to curb abusive monopoly behaviour.
In Dave Eggers' 2013 novel The Circle, a giant eponymous California tech company bears a "do no evil" philosophy somewhat like Google in its early phase. But the fictional company's overall creed according to one of Egger's characters is "infocommunism", the belief that no one is entitled to privacy, "secrets are lies (and) and sharing is caring". This subverts the idea of a person's right to control dissemination of their data.
The whole point of regulating big tech is to reassert ownership of knowledge and data and limit licenses for its use.
There is much to be said for the effort.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a columnist for The National