It’s hard to work out when the worm turned for Big Tech. It only seems like yesterday when we were all wide-eyed in our admiration of this new, West Coast thing that would transform all our lives for the better. There was a time when we looked to Google for the answer to everything - anyone recall Jeff Jarvis’s ‘What Would Google Do?’ from 2009?
The behemoth duly obliged by getting itself into mapping, autonomous cars, phones, wind farms, delivery drones, smart contact lenses, hot air balloons, robotic cheetahs, genome storage, disrupting the music and TV industries with YouTube, even 'curing death'. Big Tech was, almost by definition, progress.
Facebook was going to bring the world ‘closer together.’ Increase common understanding, bring down barriers, reach out hands across the ocean. Uber was going to get us all around cities faster, cheaper and more efficiently than either public transport or a black cab. Amazon - well what was there Amazon couldn’t do? So much more to get through our letterboxes within hours than just a second hand, dog-eared paperback for £2.80.
My, how things have now changed. Big Tech is now on the reputational back foot. Facebook suddenly became a rapacious Goldman Sachs-style giant squid sucking all the advertising pounds and dollars - or indeed, rubles - from an increasingly desperate legacy media industry. Twitter detects 3.3 million suspicious accounts each week these days. Uber’s zeal became a vile, sexist, excessive fierceness; Amazon’s control of 43% of online retail meant everyone selling anything from buttons to ball-bearings got squashed.
As Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian recently: ‘Not a day passes without apocalyptic wails against the internet. It promotes paedophilia, grooming, bullying, harassment, trolling, humiliation, intrusion, false accusation and libel. It aids terrorism, cyberwarfare, political lying, fake news, state censorship, summary injustice. It enriches a tiny few, dodges taxes, respects no borders and forces millions out of work.
The internet companies, while pretending to be utilities not publishers, manipulate and censor news. They see humans as algorithm factories, bundled for maximum advertising revenue. The "global village" is no village at all, just trillions of zombie consumers hard-wired to a handset. Who on Earth thought it a good idea?’
Fake news and Facebook blues
A recent survey and study by Nominet, the domain name registry service and internet champion, looked at the UK’s digital futures. Its outlook is generally sanguine but two highly topical findings will stand out for gain-sayers. Firstly, the fact that 11% of schools now teach pupils how to spot ‘fake news.’ Secondly, 12% of Millennials suffered mental health issues as a result of social media in the last year.
I can’t see anything wrong with the former. Fake news is nothing new. Goebbels understood its value, as did the ancients from two millennia ago. ‘Calling it out’ as we have to put it these days is as necessary as it’s ever been. Surely fake news spotting is part of learning how to critically evaluate information - just as you were taught in the pre-digital age when studying History to question where primary sources were coming from and what axe their authors had to grind.
The mental health of young people using social media has now become a government concern. In a new green paper on internet safety it has been proposed that internet companies such as Google and Facebook are to be asked to pay for measures to combat and raise awareness about online bullying and other web dangers.
The ubiquity and incessant, always-on immediacy of social media are something very new. Those who are unkind, even cruel, to others now have a fast and effective way to get in their digs as gossip. This is yet another part of ‘the great acceleration’ we have experienced over the last two decades. But a sharp tongue has always been able to deliver wounds in a playground.
A sensible response to the wave of social digital nastiness came from the country’s top psychiatrist. Prof Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: ‘I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media – good and bad – to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.’
But make no mistake, the mediums are really receiving fierce heat at the moment. Last week’s Economist cover was the Facebook F as a smoking gun with the underline ‘social media’s threat to democracy." It is one thing to be making teens worried about self-image. Subverting democracy is quite another.
It is amazing that Facebook has now acknowledged that before and after last year’s American election 146m users may have seen Russian misinformation on its platform. This wasn’t what it was all supposed to be about back in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm. Or even ‘moving fast and breaking things.’ Facebook is having to grow up fast and face its responsibilities in the self-same ways as newspaper owners and TV stations have for decades. Yet is still steadfastly refuses to accept it is a publisher of content with all the burdens that involves.
The Americans are starting to get on top of Russian interference. In the UK, however, we are only just coming round to the possibility that the Kremlin appears to have taken active steps to encourage the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum.
What now looks increasingly likely is that the tech giants are going to face some kind of increased regulation. They have been hiring public affairs people by the bucketload and hugely increasingly its lobbying spend because they fear what the restless public and national governments might do to slow their advance. We’ve been here before in oil, in banking, in steel. Big Tech’s robber baron phase, marked by light touch self-regulation, is almost certainly over. They are going to feel the hand of legislation. The question is what form it will take and to what extent it’s international in its reach and coordination.