Two Cheers for Big Tech
The recent Congressional hearings that put on the hot seat four CEOS of the top big tech corporations, reflected the mood of the public. In rare bipartisan agreement, members of Congress of both parties competed in terms who could take more pot shots, mainly aimed at the TV cameras rather than finding solutions to the problems that do afflict these corporations. Big tech is charged with violating individual rights, especially privacy ones; suppressing competition; harming small business; abusing their employees; not fostering enough diversity; and just plain being too powerful.
As I see it, the CEOs of Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook should have each received a Congressional commendation for the tremendous service they are providing during the pandemic (and before it struck). There good reasons for seeking to make them more perfect, however they should be approached the way a surgeon approaches a brain — with respect and caution — leaving the sledgehammers for the scores of price-gauging corporations, the grossly mismanaged national program for dealing with Covid-19, and agencies like the US Department of Veterans Affairs. To put it differently, the big tech companies are models of efficiency, low cost, and friendly customer treatments that provide essential services to most Americans, enabling them to maintain relationships, work from home, and be entertained as they shelter in place.
Efficiency: Anybody who deals with government agencies knows that most of the time — whether it concerns income tax, social security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act marketplace, or unemployment benefits — they would fall on their knees and thank the gods if the government would be half as efficient as Amazon is, or if government websites would be as easy to navigate as searching on Google is. The big tech corporations shine not merely when compared to government agencies, but also in comparison to most other corporations, which leave you entangled in their phone trees, promise to call back but rarely do, and ship one goods than are rather different from what they ordered. During the pandemic, being able to easily shop from home and have goods delivered became much more than a great convenience; it became a life line for many millions of people.
I am not saying that Congress has no good reasons to ask if more could be done to protect the workers in the warehouses of Amazon. However, this and other such queries should be within the context of, “OMG, we all owe you a kiss on both checks. Now let’s see how we can help you, magnificent corporations that you are, to be able to provide an even better model for other businesses and government agencies to follow”
I doubt that there are many members of Congress, members of their staff, and members of their families — who do not, several times each workday, evening, and weekend, turn to Google to find a piece of information, a reliable one, whether for their work, for medical advice, or for most anything else. All within seconds. Sure, Congress has a right to ask whether the search engines are biased against minorities or in some other way, but best while showing how much it appreciates a platform that changed the way we retrieve and process information to such an extent that its significance is akin to that of the introduction of the Gutenberg press.
Republican members of Congress had a valid point when they argued the big tech are taking down more of the conservative messages than the liberal ones. None of the big tech CEOs had the cajones to tell Congress that this indeed the case — because conservatives produce more conspiracy theories and hate speech than liberals.
Communication: Most of us find it hard to imagine how we communicated with each other, found out where our children are, conducted business, and generally lived before there were cell phones. Maybe we could do without many of the apps and do not need the better cameras Apple now provides. There are strong reasons to inquire what happens with all the information about us that our phones contain. (Actually, as I see it, currently, we need to find more ways to use this information to fight contagion, rather than making enhancing privacy our first priority.) However, this needs to be done within the context of ensuring that we do not break up these valuable tools, as some have called for, drawing on antitrust laws. Google Chat, Facebook Messenger Rooms, and Zoom deserves a special medal for making it much easier to work at home and avoid the office and mass transportation in the Covid-19 age.
Bonding: People are social animals. A huge number of studies show that they thrive when they have lasting meaningful relations, such as they find in families, friendships, and communities. And they show many signs of mental illness when they are isolated. Facebook may have been created because some nerds wanted to find dates without have to talk them up in a bar or in a shopping aisle. However, it provides hundreds of millions of people with an effective, easy way to connect and stay connected. It can lead people to waste great amounts of time, in sharing trivia, however so do people who just bond over the backyard fence. Come Covid-19 — as the bars, churches, social centers, and sports arenas all closed — Facebook et al way to bond became even more important.
Do these corporations buy out start-ups that might compete with them? I am sure they do, though not more, say, than pharmaceutical companies or oil companies. If Congress is serious about making markets more competitive, it should cast its net much wider. And while Congress is showing its concerns for the employees of Amazon, it may wish to investigate numerous attacks on workers’ rights by Republican legislatures and governments, starting in Wisconsin.
The staff of the committee conducting the hearing reports that it conducted a year long investigation of the industry, that it collected 1.3 million documents on all the ill doings of big tech, and that it is drafting recommendations on the ways to set the industry right. The hearings would have gained much more gravitas if the CEOs had a chance to review these recommendations before they were cross examined.
Google, Amazon, and Facebook (as well as Apple) are four of the very best corporations we have, corporations whose services have made Covid-19 more livable. (Note that the hearings did not include Twitter and neither do I. Its merits are much less evident). Their outstanding qualities do not mean they should be exempt from scrutiny. However, the kind of grandstanding and bursts of outrage that they received from Congress and parts of the media were never justified and are totally misplaced during the pandemic.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His most recent book, Reclaiming Patriotism, is available for download without charge.