Balancing opportunity and the public interest in the age of Big Tech

We are at a turning point in our relationship with Big Tech. Once seen as liberators and champions of free expression and consumer choice, promising better lives and an ambitious vision of an open and connected global community, Big Tech – the world of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Instagram and others – in 2018 will face increasing critical scrutiny as its more unsavoury business practices, tax avoidance schemes, monopolistic profiteering, harmful social impacts, threats to democracy and targeting of children become increasingly apparent.

Far from straightforward
But dealing with these issues will be far from easy. A century ago, regulators could break up Standard Oil and later AT&T, or deregulate to force greater airline competition. But these approaches won’t necessarily work in the digital economy. Poorly designed laws and regulations could do more harm than good.

For as much as these businesses do things that are harmful, they also deliver great benefits. Amazon makes shopping much easier, Google enables us to find stuff instantly, and Facebook provides a new way for families and friends to keep in touch.

Yet these same enterprises continue to extend their monopolistic ability to shape and profit from the dependence they have created, extending their reach into more and more business sectors while AI and new products such as Alexa and Siri collect even more data about us. Google is also becoming a major force in schools. Facebook has a new programme for children aged 6-12, presumably to create another generation of full-fledged Facebook.

These companies are also pursuing protections in trade agreements, including the renegotiation of NAFTA, to limit the power of national regulators.

Whatever new policies are designed to better regulate this new digital economy will have to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The Europeans are leading the way in seeking solutions. But there is still much to learn if needed new policies are to maximize the potential of the digital while curbing and controlling the potential excesses.

The Big Tech giants are now among the biggest companies in the world. Each is a powerfully rich enterprise, with hands in a wide range of businesses and able to hire the best lawyers, tax consultants, lobbyists and publicists in the world.

But various examples of resistance are emerging, led at the governmental level by the European Union, but with non-profit critics also emerging, some of them funded and led by tech insiders.

Example #1: None of Your Business
One is in Europe. As a law student in Austria, Max Schrems challenged the EU policy of allowing data collected by Big Tech to be transferred to the U.S. He won a ruling in the European Court of Justice which resulted in Europe adopting much tougher privacy rules, the General Data Protection Regulation. Schrems has created a non-profit, None of Your Business, to help individual Europeans protect their privacy rights under the new law.

Example #2: Time Well Spent
Another example is Time Well Spent, a non-profit launched in 2014 by Tristan Harris, who had worked at Google as a design ethicist after selling his company to Google in 2011, and James Williams, former Google Philosopher at the Oxford Internet Institute. It is targeting the practice of Apple, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and others of designing systems that turn smartphone users into addicts, steering how people use their time by software designed to keep users online as long as possible, and making choices for us that reflect corporate not personal goals.

Harris calls this the hijacking of our minds, with the smartest minds in Silicon Valley (and perhaps in Toronto and Montreal) working to get even better at keeping us online and directing us to content they want us to see.

Example #3: OpenAI
A third example is OpenAI, founded in 2015 by Tesla founder Elon Musk, venture capitalists Sam Altman and Jessica Livingston, tech entrepreneur Greg Brockman, co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel, and cofounder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman. They have banded together, pledging a total of US$1 billion, to support open source development of what they call “safe” AI as a counter to the efforts of Google, Facebook and other Big Tech companies to dominate the field. OpenAI is attracting its own top talent – Montreal AI expert Yoshua Bengio helped draw up a list of top researchers for OpenAI to pursue.

OpenAI is a response to Musk’s fear that AI, the next big technology, will be a threat to the future of human society and that control of AI systems will be concentrated in the hands of a few corporations. Given AI’s potential, he asks, “should that be controlled by a few people at Google with no oversight?”

We are moving into a new kind of world which we are far from fully understanding but which promises both great opportunities and enormous risks for the future of a fair and democratic society. It is critical that the broader public interest, not the commercial ambitions of Big Tech, prevail. But this will require much bigger thinking on how best to manage, legislate and regulate this new world which balances opportunity and the broader public interest.

David Crane can be reached at [email protected].

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David Crane
David Crane
David Crane is a noted commentator on Canadian innovation issues. He was previously a business and economics writer with the Toronto Star.

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