The balancing of big tech

Don’t like ads on YouTube or Spotify? No problem, you can pay to have them removed. Of course, they won’t stop collecting your data, but they’ll happily take your money. Even if you aren’t seeing ads they’ll still use your data to target ads at other users. It’s win win for them. They get your money and your data. Money is nice but you can only spend it once. Data can be used again and again. It’s far more valuable than your monthly subscription fee, and that’s why they won’t ever give up collecting data.

With huge amounts of data, and increasingly sophisticated ways of using it, comes great power. And with great power comes great influence. Unfortunately, in the case of big tech firms, it doesn’t come with great responsibility.

Which is where governments try to step in. Society’s defence against commercial big tech and its use of data to influence and affect the running of people’s lives is to enforce the taking of responsibility through policy and regulation.

The ‘regulate commercial big tech’ narrative often seems to loose sight of the outcome it’s trying to achieve. The goal isn’t really to regulate tech, it’s to make digital societies and online spaces safe and useful places for everyone. Unfortunately, regulation is the only tool available to governments for achieving this. But it is a blunt old-world tool that isn’t fit for purpose in the information age. It may have worked in a world of physical goods where manufacturers could be inspected to see if they have fitted safety equipment, but isn’t sufficient for an online world of algorithms that generate unexpected and unpredictable results.

Even recent regulation aimed at technology has struggled to grasp the difference data makes to big tech business models. The EU Antitrust policy defines setting prices at a loss-making level as an abuse of a dominant position as it makes it more difficult for other companies to compete in the same market. But you can use YouTube for free. The UK Online Harms Bill seeks to place responsibility for moderating content onto the platform provider. But women will continue to receive abusive messages on Instagram from men who don’t care if their throwaway account gets banned.

Making big tech responsible in ways that is counter to a business model of using data to drive engagement is a bad idea. It won’t work. It isn’t even expecting them to mark their own homework, it’s accepting them saying their dog ate it.

How we want society to work, and in the twenty-first century that means society on the internet, is an ethical choice, not just an economic one. Do we want to live in online worlds that are heavily swayed in favour of the companies providing them? Or do we want the digital places we visit to balance everyone’s needs. If we want that, we’ll have to fight fire with fire.

To paraphrase James Plunkett, “We can’t tweak policy, we need to build new institutions”. Those new institutions will define how government should work in digital spaces, and what different approaches they could deploy in balancing the needs of citizens and companies.

In a cyber war, cyber soldiers use digital weapons to attack online targets. They know the difference between online and offline. They know how the internet works. And they know the real world affect their attacks can have. If a nation’s military has the sophistication to operate effectively online, then other parts of government have a lot of catching up to do.

Government departments of the future will behave more like big tech companies than the governments of today. They won’t passively rely of regulation to incentivise and fine companies, they’ll proactively go looking for policy breaches. They will develop and deploy artificial intelligence tools that interact with and affect the internet systems of commercial big tech in service of policy aims. Competition won’t only exist between company and company, it’ll exist between companies and government to enact policy in real-time. They’ll have to if we want to achieve a balanced society on the internet.

What if only big tech can keep big tech in check?