In early 2018, I predicted that the biggest challenges Big Tech and the information technology industry would face would be political, as in regulatory and anti-trust. That is largely when the issues of the responsibilities of Big Tech companies started and now the US government is proceeding with anti-trust imvestigations on Google and governments are looking ever more closely at Facebook and Apple. Amazon has come under fire as well. Regulation, in some form or another is inevitable. Why?
Prior to what was called Web 2.0, where technologies that enabled easy ways for humans to collaborate and communicate in real-time (social media) became broadly available, most information technologies were the domain of business. It was difficult and often expensive for the average citizen to engage online. So the impact on broader society was significant, but not to the degree it is today. As the cost of technology came down, mobile data networks and smartphones became more pervasive and social media wound its way into every corner of societies around the world, there was a fundamental shift.
With the 2016 and then 2020 US election, social media had a huge impact as did the rise of conspiracy theories and foreign State actor influence activities. Over the past decade, societies have had to deal with cyberbullying, human rights issues, free agency and what is now termed as Surveillance Capitalism as coined by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff in her compelling book on the subject.
Now, information technologies are cheaper than ever, our world is increasingly phygital (physical and digital coming together), more devices than ever are connecting to the internet (Internet of Things, IoT) and governments are being pressured by citizens in Western nations to take action on these issues.
The Tech Giants know and see this. In the U.S., Canada and EU, they’ve significantly increased their lobbying efforts because they know the value of information and that is how they make their money. The first major actions by governments have been around the issue of privacy. The EU implemented the GDPR and Canada is drastically overhauling its decades old privacy law known today as PIPEDA. America lags the Western world when it comes to privacy laws except for the healthcare sector with HIPPA, but with the Biden administration coming in, privacy laws may well be on the table.
Other issues that will come into play are around the use of Artificial Intelligence and robotics in terms of human agency and free will along with increased pressures for a Universal Basic Income (UBI.) Many governments still lag in understanding the impacts of these tools, but they are beginning to catch up as pressure mounts from citizen groups.
It is going to be a messy process, but it will happen. All technologies are a double edged sword, they always have been and always will be. Society has progressed to the point now that we understand and know this, but we have addressed this in the past only when crises have arisen. And it is already crises around privacy, foreign State actors behaving badly and social disharmonies that are driving governments to seek greater regulation of the tech sector.