December 20, 2019
Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are valued together at $4+ trillion, with the six surviving founders of four of these companies worth $450 billion, noted Forbes, adding that these valuations have quintupled since 2009. The technology coming out of these companies has also been powerful, from smartphones to ride-sharing. Currently, tech accounts for seven of the top 10 worldwide companies by market cap. This wealth accumulation hasn’t been seen since Standard Oil at the turn of the 20th Century.
The Wall Street Journal reports that, in artificial intelligence, “Facebook and Google both have computers that can recognize people and objects in images with help from their gargantuan photo and video libraries … [and] Amazon’s Alexa assistant, meanwhile, gets smarter with each voice query.” By the end of the next decade, it adds, “Google may have revolutionized the car and truck industries with its state-of-the-art autonomous-driving technology running on even faster 5G networks.”
But this concentration of wealth and power “also come at a cost … [as] our dependency on these platforms is feeding a backlash over privacy, screen addiction, software algorithms that mislead users, the spread of misinformation and online mobs that pollute political discourse.” For that reason, many critics want to see these Big Tech companies broken up or regulated more vigorously.
A July survey from the Pew Research Center revealed that “U.S. adults rank tech companies second, behind churches and religious organizations, for having a positive impact on the country.” But that only accounts for 50 percent of those surveyed, down from 71 percent in 2015. Those who believe tech companies have a negative impact rose to 33 percent from 17 percent.
Respondents pointed out the negative impact of “misinformation and conspiracy theories” as well as the “crackpot conspiracy theorists” behind some of YouTube’s algorithms. They can also point to Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, YouTube’s No. 1 content creator in 2016/2017 who “repeatedly posted Nazi imagery and anti-Jewish material to his more than 50 million followers at the time.” The staff of such social media companies “have struggled to keep pace with the volume of violent, pornographic and other prohibited content that is uploaded every minute.”
University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci criticized these tech companies for “deciding speech codes for the world,” dubbing them “de facto sovereign entities,” noting that their founders ultimately make all the decisions. Amazon is also criticized for being “unable or unwilling to effectively police third-party sellers, some of whom sell dangerous or toxic products, many coming from China.”
The biggest threat to Big Tech going forward, concludes WSJ, is “techlash” that could change one law that has helped them grow unfettered: avoiding responsibility for what’s posted on their platforms.