For one brief, shining moment it seemed as if the pandemic was going to put a stop to the techlash.
In the earliest days of the crisis, US tech companies made all sorts of helpful, grown-up decisions. Before California announced a stay at home order, Facebook told employees to leave offices. Apple and Google formed a rare partnership to ensure smartphones could exchange test and trace information. Netflix, YouTube and Amazon agreed to reduce video streaming quality in Europe to ease the strain on internet service providers.
The warm fuzzy feelings those actions generated have long since evaporated. Big Tech’s reputation as overreaching and overly powerful has reasserted itself. This week, public faith took another sharp knock with Facebook’s decision to ban Australian users from sharing news articles. Within hours of the company’s decision #DeleteFacebook was trending on Twitter.
This is not entirely fair. News publishers like to moan that Facebook and Google dominate digital advertising revenue — which is true. But it is also true that legacy publishers were slow to relinquish print advertising income and move online.
The two sides should be able to strike a deal. News outlets want access to Facebook’s billions of users. Facebook, heavily criticised for doing too little to combat the spread of misinformation, benefits from reputable news links. But publishers want a larger share of online advertising profits than Facebook thinks they deserve. News is not the company's priority. I expect it will concede and follow Google by making a deal with Australian publishers. But it will do so to ward off regulation, not because it believes the content is worth vast sums to its business.
That business is doing extremely well. Big Tech has spent the past few weeks showing us exactly how lucrative the past year has been. Facebook raised its daily user count for all platforms by 15 per cent to 2.6bn. Microsoft nearly tripled its Teams user count to 115m. Amazon’s ecommerce boom led it to raise its employee count by almost two-thirds to 1.3m. It is close to eclipsing Walmart as the biggest employer in the US.
With sales up, the sector is swimming in cash. Facebook was sitting on nearly $62bn at the end of December. Apple, which is intent on whittling down its vast cash pile to zero by returning money to shareholders via dividends and share buybacks, just reported record operating cash flow. Microsoft, which has $132bn of cash and short-term investments, appears desperate to spend some of its fortune. First it was interested in video sharing smash hit TikTok. Then it approached inspo-picture sharing platform Pinterest. Expect a third attempt to emerge soon.
Sales are up and reliance on tech products is more entrenched than ever. But early hints that Big Tech might play a significant role in ending the pandemic have not come to much. In the US, the scale of transmission outran attempts at contact tracing. There have been no show-stopping innovations since. The tools used to fight the virus: face masks, social distancing, testing and vaccines, have not been improved on by the tech sector.
Perhaps this is why public antipathy towards tech companies and support for antitrust action is still high. Nearly half of those questioned in a Pew survey said major tech companies should be regulated more than they are now.
Regulators are listening. Australia’s push to force Google and Facebook to compensate publishers for news is being monitored closely by Europe. In the US, Google faces three antitrust lawsuits while Facebook is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission. For the techlash it’s business as usual.
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