Annus Horribilis – 2017 Tipping Point for Tech Determinism

Annus Horriblis may be the kindest way to describe how tech platforms have fared in 2017.

Google, and to a lesser extent Facebook and Twitter, have – for want of a better description – taken a pounding from the press in key areas of privacy, corporate governance, taxation, abuse of dominant position and stifling innovation.

Let’s break this down a little, because judging by reams of negative coverage, it would seem the dopamine of bleary eyed tech fatalism has run dry.

There are accusations of stifling free speech by removing the social media app Gab from Google Play app store, or thwarting the inter-operability of Google Docs with longtime rival Opera browser. Pouring cold water on the profits of content creators by demonetising videos (while claiming to protect advertisers from having their ads shown alongside unsavory or propaganda content). Such is the power of Google’s platform that another rival browser Vivaldi, found itself kicked off of Adwords; there were the threats to blacklist publishers from AdExchange and DoubleClick for violating Google’s ban on hate speech simply for discussing remedies to it!

Google, and to a lesser extent Facebook and Twitter have taken a pounding from the press in key areas of privacy, corporate governance, taxation, abuse of dominant position and stifling innovation.

Start-ups have long since been fodder for the ‘too-big-to-fail’ tech platforms; many being acquired and with that the tech, innovation and any threat absorbed into the larger company. However, there are some that will push back.  Jagiellonian University for example, who are backing Jarosław Duda; an author of ANS video compression , whose work contributed to an open source compression technique. Sadly, for Duda, Google attempted to patent the video compression application of ANS coding – receiving heavy criticism from Polish media along the way.

Google has been panned for the broadside against innovation (closing out new tech from their distribution channel, Google Play), buying start-ups to thwart competition, patent trolling or for throwing the baby out with the bathwater with regards to hate speech (disenfranchising legitimate YouTubers using the veil of censorship).

DON’T BE CRITICAL

In August, Barry C Lynn, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Open Markets, think tank in Washington, D.C, wrote a blog post. In the post he commended the European Commission for fining Google “€2.42 billion for abusing dominance as a search engine by giving illegal advantage to its own comparison shopping service”.  Unfortunately, Lynn’s project received most of its funding from Google. Shortly after the post the project was canned, allegedly for criticizing Google. Merely a coincidence, perhaps? Perhaps Not! It certainly piled opprobrium from commentators on Google nevertheless.

SEARCHING FOR EDITORIAL STANDARDS

In October both Google and Facebook promoted a link to a fake 4Chan story that claimed to have the name of the Las Vegas shooter. Google presented the story as “breaking news” while Facebook’s system presented it in their “Top Stories” section.

At best each was poor corporate governance, at worst defamation. Google spread misinformation and promoted material that incorrectly identified the shooter as Geary Danley – long before Police identified the murder as Stephen Paddock.

Naturally both platforms blamed their algorithm, promised to improve “quality”, employ extra “human quality raters” and apologised. All well and good, unless you are Geary Danley.

ANTI-TRUST & TAX EVASION

There were European Commission fines of €2.42 for favouring Google Shopping in search listings over competitor sites. The EC said that Google had, “abused its market dominance as a search engine by giving an illegal advantage to another Google product.”

The EC said that Google had abused its market dominance

There was also a hefty bill for ‘funnelling’ cash from India to Ireland to evade paying taxes. In the case, “Google has been ordered to pay business taxes on 14,570m rupees ($224m) of profit to the Indian government after losing a six-year legal battle.”

However, last year Alphabet – Google’s parent company – reported global revenues of $21.5B in 2016. These are eye-watering sums, which make the fines for tax avoidance and anti-trust pale into insignificance.

This year hacking and data leaks were never far from the headlines; (Equifax, Yahoo – again and T-Mobile), the EU finally acted in relation to Facebook owned WhatsApp’s storing personal data (including that of non-users of services in 2016).  The company is facing censor from a data protection taskforce. The Article 29 Data Protection Working Party are acting in relation to WhatsApp sharing user data with parent company Facebook, despite previous instruction by European watchdogs and regulators not to do so.

Separately, the Spanish Data Protection Agency ruled that Facebook had used unauthorised user data for advertising practices, and had therefore broken local privacy laws. These fines were a symbolic rather than significant €1.2m ($1.5m) charge.

The fine for unauthorised profiling is not the first this year. In May, French authorities levied the maximum permitted fine for data breaches when fining Facebook €150,000 ($179,300).

BUT FACEBOOK IS RELIGION

Facebook hasn’t fared much better in the PR stakes and have even gone as far as to claim their handling of the Russian ad funded scandal – rumoured to have influenced the 2016 US election – as being equal in measure to the work of UNICEF!

Facebook asked, “Shouldn’t you stop foreigners from meddling in US social issues?”

Then said, “Organizations such as UNICEF, Oxfam or religious organizations depend on the ability to communicate — and advertise — their views in a wide range of countries.”

Technology has never been neutral. Technology always favours some over others. Christian Katzenbach

So, if it’s good enough for UNICEF, it’s good enough for Facebook!

Then again; “technology has never been neutral,” Christian Katzenbach, head of internet policy and governance at the Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society, a think tank in Berlin told Politico magazine. “Technology always favours some over others.”

While tech and algorithms can go awry, the underlying control is human led. Never forget that Google or Facebook are human led and did not hatch from an egg, no matter how many times Silicon Valley says “incubator” and “start-up”.

NOT TO FORGET TWITTER

If Google has been drinking the Kool-Aid, Facebook has been embroiled in the Russia/Trump election saga, while Twitter has escaped quite the same level of regulatory scrutiny, but not without issue.

Hate Speech, dissemination of terror material, and Trump himself have brought the platform under the microscope.

Hate speech [and] instances of trolling are to be treated and investigated in the same light as threats made offline.

Hate speech received focus in the likes of UK where instances of trolling are to be treated and investigated in the same light as threats made offline.

There were reports that Twitter was slowest to remove material relating to terrorism, and then there were renewed self-regulation commitments to act to suppress such material faster. The commitment came in cohort with Google and Facebook. The US and UK governments want to know which Russian backed accounts have taken out adverts in support of election candidates or in the Brexit referendum. In one response Twitter has simply removed and blocked Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from having any ability to advertise on the platform.

AND FINALLY… THERE’S TRUMP

President Trump has been reported for bullying (his vitriol towards newscasters or individuals given as a reason), and then there is the fact that President Trump commands a huge following and engagement factor on Twitter.

He is reported to be worth $2bn in revenue to the company. Why would Twitter ban Trump?!

He is reported to be worth $2bn in revenue to the company. Why would Twitter ban Trump?!

The past twelve months have signaled a departure in some quarters from acceptance of tech determinism in mainstream comment.  Post-Trump the narrative has shifted from “too big to fail” to “no smoke without fire”.

Where better to show just how bad 2017 has been for the big tech platforms than a few Google trend searches for ‘Google Fined’, ‘Trump Russia Facebook’, ‘Fake News’ or ‘Hate Speech’, to gain some empirical (albeit shrouded) insight.

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