A free press has long been considered the lifeblood of democracy. But events over the last few weeks have seen journalists, a president, and even an entire country threatened by tech companies that increasingly determine what information we can or cannot see.
If you dare to leave the safety of your echo chamber, you are likely to find nothing but polarization and division. As you continue to endlessly scroll down your newsfeed, you will also encounter further examples of outrage and manipulation. By allowing tech companies to move fast and break things without thinking of the consequences, we currently find ourselves in an unfortunate situation.
A handful of fast-moving tech companies have outpaced laws and regulations to become more powerful than governments.
Several years have passed since Google quietly removed its famous motto, ‘don’t be evil’ from its code of conduct. By contrast, last week, Google sent a chilling threat of withdrawing its services from Australia after being asked to pay media outlets for their news content.
There is an argument that the tech behemoth has long forgotten its original motto. Google’s threat provided a timely reminder of the old saying, ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.’ If Australia fails to play by Google’s rules, they will remove their products and services. However, the fallout between Australia and Google could eventually affect us all.
The Battle of the Precedents
Australia wants to set a new precedent by introducing a law that will require tech companies to make fair payments to news organizations to compensate for a dramatic fall in print advertising. Last year Facebook also threatened to stop Australian users from sharing news stories if it introduced the law.
The nation argues that the pandemic has helped big tech thrive at the expense of local journalism and the news industry. Australian politicians fear that if they let their media die, it will eventually threaten democracy.
Although Australia is far from Google’s biggest market, it’s the threat of setting a new precedent where other regions introduce similar laws.
Some might argue that this is much more about the Murdoch media empire pressuring the Australian Government to step in. In the UK, the Government provided the national newspapers with a £35 million bailout to cover the loss in advertising during the pandemic. There is also belief in some circles that traditional media companies and newspapers have a cosy relationship with governments that is a little too close for comfort.
Although Google dominates 90% of the search engine market, it heavily relies on advertising to deliver billions of dollars in revenue. By threatening to remove its search engine and suite of apps such as Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube out of Australia, it’s attempting to stop a new precedent from being set that will threaten its business around the world.
The importance of local news
The majority of the news that we read online is often national or global stories that are politicized and have gone on to polarized society. But the biggest victim has been our local newspapers and our ability to learn more about issues that affect our community. This is just one example of how some might feel disenfranchised or unheard by larger news outlets.
Trusted local journalism is often the only way that people can make their voices heard. At a time when we are all being asked to stay in our homes it can also play a critical role in ensuring we feel connected to our communities too.
Exploring innovative new approaches to fund local publishers and provide people with the critical local information they need should be protected at all costs. However, the solution is much more complicated.
The inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, warned that forcing companies to pay for displaying news content could make the web unworkable around the world. There is arguably a battle between governments, traditional and digital empires that all want to control the daily narrative that we wake up to every morning. But where do we go from here?
Blurring the lines between tech and media companies
In 2017, Google News’s boss said that Google was not a media company because they didn’t produce media. Several weeks before launching its news feature in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg also famously told Congress that Facebook wasn’t a media company. It was a tech company. Big tech is continuing to avoid taking legal responsibility for what is being published on its sites.
Events from the last twelve months have proved that the world needs both individuals and big companies to be responsible for their actions.
It’s time to stop moving fast and breaking things and understand the consequences and implications they are unwittingly creating. This is just the beginning of a growing techlash where users are beginning to question their love affair with big tech.
Last week it was Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, telling Google, “Let me be clear, Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia.” German chancellor Angela Merkel also recently called Twitter’s decision to ban US President Donald Trump a “problematic” breach of the “fundamental right to free speech.”
The message is clear, governments are beginning to stand up to big tech.
The proportion of people turning to social media to get their daily news fix also fell from 49% in 2019 to 45% in 2020. Many are also beginning to question the always watching and listening devices continuously gathering data. Maybe Silicon Valley should be more afraid of new services such as the Brave Browser and the DuckDuckGo search engine that help users to stop sharing their online data with big tech companies.
It is often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. There is a long list of big tech companies such as AltaVista, Yahoo, AOL, Netscape, Blackberry that were once household names. When combined with the fact that only 52 companies have been on the Fortune 500 since 1955, it highlights how no company is too big to fail. But as Patti Smith once sang, it’s the people who have the power to dream, to rule and to wrestle the world from fools.