Big Tech is poised to continue playing defense this year in the face of mounting public and political scrutiny over the generally unchecked collection and use of user data.
Just watching a few minutes of the many, many government hearings in the U.S. and Europe that executives from the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter participated in over the last 18 months or so (Amazon has been spared hearings for a few years but a new probe is likely to change that), it’s obvious that emotions around use of people’s data — everything from shopping habits to near constant location tracking — are running high.
In Europe, government regulators are much more active in trying to keep the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon from overwhelming its single-market economy by leveraging their utter dominance over social media, searchable content and online commerce to edge out any possibility of competition. And the region, which leans toward much stricter antitrust rules, is already handing out fines for violations of its new General Data Protection Regulation law and seems to be working more directly to stymie the seemingly unstoppable growth of these major tech-driven companies.
The focus on Facebook seems likely to carry on as the social media company, which also owns and operates Instagram and WhatsApp (collectively with about four billion users, or roughly 52 percent of the global population), dealt with scandal after scandal in 2018 — and not very well. “Delay, Deny and Deflect” was the headline of a New York Times exposé of how Facebook leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg tried to dodge political and public fallout last year. Then U.K. Parliament at the end of November had yet another hearing on the company’s use of consumer data, inviting lawmakers from nine countries to participate.
Canadian politician Charlie Angus during the hearing said simply that “the problem we have with Facebook is there’s never any accountability.” He was responding to Richard Allen, Facebook’s director of policy who was sent in (again) to take a tongue-lashing in place of Zuckerberg, who attempted to explain (again) how the company is working to address an apparently lax outlook on collecting, leveraging and sometimes selling user information.
“Perhaps the simplest answer would be to break up Facebook and treat it as a public utility,” Angus suggested as Allen looked away and reshuffled some papers.
Even in the European Union, Facebook becoming a public utility is unlikely, but the company’s freewheeling days under the protective umbrella of operating as a mere user “platform” are looking to be numbered. Already its collection and sharing abilities have been limited under the GDPR, and that goes for Google and Amazon as well. All are under additional scrutiny as government officials and the public they represent wise up to the fact that advertisers are not paying the corporations hundreds of billions of dollars a year simply for lists of names and e-mail addresses, but rather insights into how people live their private lives. Numerous U.S. magazine and newspaper publishers, too, have had to change some of their online operations around collection of reader data to comply with GDPR and are prepping for similar changes to take effect at home, at some point.
Richard Gingras, vice president of news at Google, recently told WWD that it would be “…foolish to say regulation does not have its place, but it becomes a question of what? What are we regulating? How are we regulating it?”
We might find out this year.