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Special Edition Magazine, Spring 2020: Beyond the Techlash

Don’t Equate Technology with Big Tech

With just a few multinational tech firms lording over most of the twenty-first-century economy, it is safe to say that the digital revolution's emancipatory potential has been squandered – at least for now. But in charting a new course forward, it is critical that policymakers in Europe and elsewhere focus on the real problem, which is not technology but rather the Big Tech business model.

STANFORD – The backlash against Big Tech follows years of hype no less superficial than that accompanying the arrival of the Internet, mobile phones, and social media. Promises that technology would allow democracy to “go viral” have not been borne out; and often, the opposite has happened. Many in Europe and elsewhere are now demanding a forceful response by regulators and policymakers. But fixing the problems that we have come to associate with today’s technologies requires that we focus our attention in the right place. Digital technology is not the problem; the business models behind it are.

Consider how we got to this point. By improving access to information and disrupting top-down power structures, digital technologies were supposed to empower individuals vis-à-vis information monopolists. But the tech giants who disrupted the old media have themselves become the gatekeepers of data and information. The promise that digital services would foster transparency has been replaced by the reality of opaque algorithms. Rather than giving a voice to the voiceless, social media have handed a virtual megaphone to hate mongers, whose messages resonate far and wide with the help of anonymous bots.

None of this happened by accident. These developments are the all-too-predictable result of corporate-governance decisions (or indecision) and carefully devised business models aimed at maximizing profits, vacuuming up data, and amassing market power. The Silicon Valley giants have been incredibly successful in pursuing these goals. Now it is time to hold them to account.

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