For years now, the Silicon Valley giants have been amassing great power and wealth and there have been endless discussions around what that means for the future of the digital ecosystem. There is nothing wrong with their success; however, some of the ways they have reached it have compromised the better principles of business and conscience. They are, by no means, the only ones. There is always a struggle between greed and virtue and, unfortunately, greed generally wins.
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, also known as Lord Acton, in 1887, penned this saying, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This has proven, and continues to be proven, true even in the digital age.
Now, the term “bad men” has a variety of definitions. Ruthless businesspersons may not necessarily be horrible human beings. Horrible human beings are not always ruthless businesspersons. And there are bad “men” everywhere. In the business ecosystem, ruthless business practices good for the bad “men,” are harmful to the rank and file that are affected by them, and that permeates throughout other segments (customers, government, judicial, etc.). As well, ruthless people can scale their philosophy throughout the company. The unfortunate fact is that, left to their own devices, most large companies will align with Lord Acton’s observation.
Where I am going with this is the emergence of the practices that Silicon Valley tech giants have used, for years now. These practices transgress on a user’s personal privacy and security and evolved the unscrupulous use of user data. I need not go further into that. We are all aware of the nefarious practices of companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Yahoo and an infinite number of other across many ecosystems.
What is interesting is how these actors have been so adept at sidestepping blows thrown at them. Facebook is a prime example of that doing the same thing over and over with few repercussions. And, they all continue to rake in the dough and amass power.
However, perhaps the glory days are fading. There is a move from in Congress to take a hard look at what these giants are all about. A bipartisan group, under the arm of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, has been formed to investigate competition in these emerging digital markets. Some say it is about time the monolithic power base of these tech giants is dissevered. This follows similar actions taken by the European Union (EU) with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Many of these companies, much like the current Administration, seem to have a layer of Teflon – nothing seems to stick to them. However, Congress is, finally, waking up to what they are doing. One subcommittee is looking at them with antitrust eyes.
According to the House Antitrust Subcommittee’s Chairman David Cicilline, such monopolistic concentration of power “is one of the most pressing economic and political challenges we face today. Market power in digital markets presents a whole new set of dangers.” He goes on to say, “After four decades of weak antitrust enforcement and judicial hostility to antitrust cases, it is critical that Congress step in to determine whether existing laws are adequate to tackle abusive conduct by platform gatekeepers or whether we need new legislation to respond to this challenge.” He makes a germane point – and timely. To date, there has been very little regulatory oversight.
Europe, on the other hand, has been on this for a while with the, earlier mentioned, GDPR. The GDPR is the core of Europe’s digital privacy legislation. In a nutshell, the GDPR is a new set of rules that give EU citizens more control over their personal data. It addresses the digital transformation. It brings laws and obligations – including those around personal data, privacy and consent into the 21stcentury. Of course, there are proponents and opponents for this, as is the case most paradigm shifts and forays into uncharted territory.
The issue is that, going forward, tech will play the primary role in the emerging digital commerce infrastructure. That makes data (yours and mine) the most valuable asset a tech company, involved in the space we are discussing, can acquire. The damage that can be done by the abuse of digital data is unprecedented so, it is best to cap this before the ship is too far out to sea.
There are arguments for large power bases and monopolies. For one, in the beginning, concentrated control offers a fast track to growth, which, up to a point is a good thing. But it begs the question, where is the inflection point where such organizations have too much control and begin to cause more problems than they solve?
There is a debate that we are approaching in the normalization of some technologies (AI for example). These players have done a marvelous job of bringing such platforms to us for the advancement of technology. Normalization implies that it may be time to reel them in, since much of what they have done has been integrated into both the commercial and consumer ecosystems.
What will be interesting is to see just how much power these tech giants can wield against the moves to unpack them. No doubt, they will marshal all available assets – and they have a boatload of them – from lobbyists to hiring the finest legal beagles to simply dodging the bullets by varying their methodologies.
The stakes are high. There is just too much skin in the game by all levels of players – from CEOs to investors and suppliers. The potential ramifications could look like what happened to the telcos back in the 1980s. However, the ecosystem is different. It is much faster moving and the evolution of the digital ecosystem has a much broader reach than in the telco days. There is no precedent for the digital transformation.
On the government side, some are concerned that the regulators do not have enough of an understanding to take this on. That is a legitimate concern as was evidenced in the interrogation of Facebook’s Zuckerberg. Some of the question posed by Congress were embarrassingly naïve (to put it mildly). This is a genuine concern in going forward with this task.
Finally, the reach of the tech giants spans across all industries, not only tech – vehicles, cities, infrastructures, the enterprise, retail, just to mention a few. So the fallout from this is going to be much further reaching that just in the tech sector.
There is little argument that these tech giants are out of control. There is also little doubt that the time is ripe for some sort of regulation. My hope is that the regulation is done from an intellectual angle and not from some vote-drumming, grandstand, feather-touch play by bureaucrats that want to get reelected rather than have the best interests of businesses and consumers in mind.
If this moves forward with any teeth, it will have far-reaching implications, across every ecosystem, especially wireless, as wireless permeates every nook and cranny of our lives. Tech has done a lot to improve the quality of our lives – but at a cost. The cost is what needs to be reeled in.