The backlash to the tech backlash
Washington's love affair with Big Tech is over. Obviously. Can you imagine the Trump White House partnering with Google on art projects like Michelle Obama did? Or Mark Zuckerberg announcing a presidential exploratory committee? There were plenty of solar-flare-level hot takes about Zuck doing just that when he toured America in 2017. Not so much anymore.
More importantly, there are nearly a dozen ongoing or announced government investigations of Big Tech companies — at least the ones that aren't the biggest of them all, Microsoft. The Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, House Financial Services and Judiciary committees, and four dozen state attorneys general are all on the case. They want to hear more about the competition and privacy practices at Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook. The air is thick with talk of massive fines, onerous new regulations, and anti-trust breakups. One top Democrat has even mused about Zuckerberg going to prison for Facebook's privacy problems.
So, yeah, there's been something of a political backlash, or "techlash," against America's tech titans. But is the general public — in whose lives these companies are intricately intertwined — as agitated as the politicians, pundits, activists, and coastal journalists? Not really, argues Rob Walker in a viral New York Times op-ed, "There Is No Tech Backlash, in which he concludes that despite much social media kvetching, the evidence of our actions suggests "we love our devices as much as ever."
And Walker has a point. People keep sharing on Facebook, searching on Google, buying on Amazon, and downloading on Apple. Real-world consumer behavior — economists call this our "revealed preference" — is a powerful indicator that while non-elite opinion about Big Tech has darkened a bit, it's really more of nebulous hand-wave than hard, meaningful belief.
But the techlashers find this evidence unpersuasive. In fact, they think it proves just how dangerous, superdominant companies have come to bestride the American economy and political system. "Look, these companies are selling your data, buying up competitors, addicting your kids, and fueling out-of control inequality. The media can't stop talking about it, but somehow you just won't or can't quit them. Why do you think that is? Hello!"
Or as journalist and tech commentator Casey Newton of The Verge snarks, "one of the many nice things about monopolistic businesses [is that] it's very hard to avoid being a customer."
So a techlash conundrum: If people abandon the bad boys of Big Tech, it means they're finally fed up with all that misbehavior. And if they stick around, it means they've been locked in by anti-competitive practices. Is there no third option here that assumes a different consumer preference? Apparently not. In any event, says Axios financial reporter Felix Salmon, a techlash doesn't need to be a "spontaneous mass consumer boycott." It may just be "consumers demanding and receiving government action and regulation."
But we don't really know if that's what consumers want. That's the whole point. It's inconceivable to many tech critics that many people fundamentally accept the user-data-for-free-services trade-off that is the business model of Google and Facebook. Rather than viewing digital privacy as an existential need of modern life, we find that sometimes-creepy "surveillance capitalism" works for us.
It sure does for Axios reporter, Erica Pandey, who recently wrote: "I, like scores of others, have decided that I'm okay with giving up personal data in order to keep getting convenient, cheap (or free) services. Despite the known episodes of firms misusing data, the ease and quality of life under the reign of Big Tech generally seems worth it." No way that Pandey is some freakish exception.
If we really are rejecting our tech overlords — and thus the notion that the government should crimp all their business models and/or break them up — shouldn't there be some significant sign of that rejection other than a few public polls? Especially if those polls give no sense of the inevitable trade-offs that come with government action? For instance: A new survey finds two-thirds of Americans want to break up companies like Amazon and Google when told doing so ensures "more competition in the future." Hey, who doesn't like competition? But would break-ups be so popular if the respondents were told they might lead to higher prices, worse service, less research investment — and maybe less ability to fight off foreign rivals?
Other polls find we have lots of privacy concerns — yet we won't update privacy settings on an app or use two-step authentication for our Gmail or connect through VPNs. There are plenty of privacy oriented alternatives — such as the DuckDuck Go search engine and Brave browser — that we pretty much ignore. Then there's the recent survey that found the five most popular brands among Millennials were Netflix, Google, Amazon, YouTube, and Target. Among GenZ: Google, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, and Oreo. We don't just grudgingly like their products of these companies, we kind of like the companies themselves.
And if Washington messes all that up with ill-considered legislation, the politicians better get ready for the anti-tech backlash backlash.
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