Big Tech, those major producers and innovators of technology, certainly had their share of attention in 2018. From privacy issues to being at the center of international political intrigue, they all were rudely made aware of the challenges that they failed to address. Those same challenges need to be at the top of the agenda of Big Tech to ensure we can travel along safely and securely on the Internet Highway. For future reference we have created an acronym, PEDAL, to help you remember what the major issues are.
1. Privacy and justice for all
To begin with a piece of good news, despite the political wrangling that currently dominates the American politics, there is bi-partisan support for a national privacy bill that will protect consumers. This of course requires the government to veer clear of the current shutdown, which may mean we have to wait until 2119. But Big Tech firms came under heavy scrutiny by both government and consumers last year, bringing data privacy to the top of the to-do list. Of particular interest to both groups is Facebook, which has a number of scandals that were not fully addressed by Zuckerberg. From a broader view, the government has been looking into Google, Amazon, and Facebook as potential antitrust legislation targets as these three companies are dominating in the area of digital advertising revenue. We want their services but also out privacy, thank you very much.
2. Employee revolts that connect to major social issues
The dominating media topic of 2018 was sexual harassment and assault, particularly in the workplace. Big Tech firms did not escape this focus. For example, 20,000 Google employees walked out in protest of the way the company dealt with claims of sexual harassment. At least 10 high level Facebook executives left the company, and though exact reasons went undisclosed it is reasonable to presume those departures were connected to the ethics of Facebook in some shape or form. It seems that management is being squeezed from both the top and the bottom, and ownership must change its corporate culture or see more of this in the coming year.
3. Device addiction as a focus of the media
Here is where science clashes with technology, except the science is psychology. A torrent of evidence that connected the use of technology with negative impacts on humans, particularly the younger population, created a cause for concern for Big Tech companies. Reports had device addiction actually rewiring the brain, and consumers responded with a pull back from daily usage opting to turn off their technology and go out and play. Apple attempted to tackle the issue by sending its users an update every week informing them of the amount of time they spent on their device(s). But most of Big Tech needs their customers to stay on their devices to remain profitable. This year will be a test to see whether technology really can benefit humans or is simply a way to control their time and their money.
4. Antitrust legislation
This was briefly mentioned earlier, but more detail is in order. What the United States is trying to pass into law the European Union has already successfully done. In May of last year the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was enacted. This law definitely has caused Facebook to lose millions of customers, though it isn’t certain that a few million of the roughly 2.1 billion users will be noticed. The current thinking is that American legislators have been giving a close look at the GDPR and are likely to adopt a considerable amount of the law into its own bill. This means it is possible for the government to avoid controversial antitrust legislation if the privacy law can significantly impact the Big Tech companies. In either case, there will have to be smaller companies stepping up to pick up the revenue left behind.
5. Leadership from within
Though Steve Jobs has passed on, the majority of the Big Tech companies are still controlled by their owners. Think Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos and Amazon (though maybe not for long). Their questionable decisions have affected millions of people, and it can be fairly argued that if there were more external controls exerted from inside the company the outcome of many of 2018’s problems would likely have been different. Boards of Governance exist at all of these companies, but the question is whether there is role advisory or governance. Some Big Tech companies such as Google and Microsoft clearly have boards that exert considerable influence over the end decisions.
What is the problem with a lack of governance? See the antitrust issue. When companies cannot control themselves the government will almost always step in. The last thing any business wants is having the government crawling around in their business.