Facebook, Google and Twitter executives testify before congress Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Big Tech Meets Big Government

In an ideal world, major tech companies would recognize and adjust to their growing systemic importance in step with external actors, including governments and consumers, thereby striking the right balance between innovation, consumer benefits and protection, and national security. But this is not an ideal world.

SINGAPORE – Impressive quarterly results from the biggest technology companies show that they are nowhere near saturating their consumer markets, exhausting their innovation cycles, or reaching growth maturation. Dig a little deeper, and those reports also illustrate the sector’s substantial and growing systemic importance. Yet, for the tech sector, there is a distinct downside to this development.

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With increased systemic importance often comes greater scrutiny. And, indeed, today’s prosperous and innovative tech giants now face the prospect of redoubled efforts to regulate and tax their activities. The longer it takes for these companies to recognize their systemic importance, the greater the likelihood of a more powerful backlash by governments and the public, hurting the companies and undermining their ability to continue producing innovations that genuinely boost consumers’ wellbeing.

When the tech sector began its evolution toward systemic importance, it comprised a collection of hungry start-ups possessing breakthrough technologies. Beyond disrupting existing economic sectors and activities, these technologies ended up producing new demand for the altogether new goods and services that they enabled.

Tech companies’ track record – time and again proving their capacity for exceptional growth – enables them to attract massive investment. They are thus able not only to strengthen their market position in their core activities, but also to develop innovative capabilities in new areas, by taking over smaller competitors, whether actual or prospective. And some are even able to self-disrupt repeatedly – and thus consistently to remain at the technological frontier.

Fueling Big Tech’s remarkable growth further, many of these companies’ services are ostensibly free, facilitating quick adoption by consumers. It helps that these services often can be provided as seamlessly abroad as they are within their country of origin, to the point that the very concept of “abroad” has become rather elastic.

Over time, the major tech companies’ rapid accumulation of market power has led to the rise of oligopolies in some sectors, and monopoly players in a few. Their social, economic, and even political influence has soared in some cases. Facebook and Twitter, for example, played a pivotal role in galvanizing protesters during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

This raises serious risks: as beneficial as Big Tech’s innovations are, they can also serve as important channels for state or non-state actors to bring about their own disruptions. In the run-up to last year’s presidential election in the United States, some social media platforms inadvertently enabled the spread of disinformation. More menacing, extremists like the Islamic State have relied on social media for recruitment and propaganda purposes.

It should come as no surprise that Big Tech firms tend to move much faster than governments and regulators. As such, what began as a laissez-faire attitude of benign neglect– largely a result of ignorance and inattention – is evolving into something more forceful. As tech firms reach systemic importance, attitudes toward them change markedly.

This shift has become increasingly apparent in recent years, as major tech firms have faced intensifying scrutiny of their competitive practices, tax behavior, data uses, and privacy policies. Broader questions about their contributions to labor displacement and effects on wage growth have also arisen, even as societies increasingly recognize that technological disruption implies the need for education reform and improvements in skills acquisition and retraining.

Yet the tech sector itself still seems to underestimate its growing systemic importance. As a result, firms can lag in recognizing the need to update their operations, resources, and mindsets to reflect their shift from small disruptor to powerful incumbent. That means building more comprehensive and integrated business models, informed by experienced talent with expertise in a broader array of areas, in order to move beyond these companies’ laser focus on innovation.

The longer this process takes, the greater the risk that tech firms will lose control of the narrative. Beyond fueling a rise in outside monitoring, regulation, and supervision, there is the risk of a consumer backlash – or even the further exploitation of innovations by malicious actors.

In an ideal world, major tech companies would recognize and adjust to their changing role in step with external actors, including governments and consumers, thereby striking the right balance between innovation, consumer benefits and protection, and national security. But this is not an ideal world. And, so far, internal and external forces have been out of sync, in terms of perceptions, capabilities, and actions. Add to that conscious and unconscious biases and considerable temptation for political manipulation, and the risks become only more profound.

Big Tech can and should play a larger role in helping the entire economy to evolve in an orderly and mutually beneficial manner. This will require, first and foremost, that they internalize their own systemic importance, and adjust their perspectives and behaviors accordingly. But it will also demand far better communication, with firms’ objectives and operations becoming much more transparent. And, finally, it will call for a commitment to enhanced monitoring both of themselves and of their peers, together with more effective collective action, as appropriate.

If the tech sector fails to make such changes, government oversight and regulation will inevitably intensify. And it is far from certain that the net result will be positive for society, much less for business.

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