The big four tech firms, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, known to some as GAFA, are seeing their unbridled growth and huge disruptive power slowly come back to cause problems.
The companies are often put together because they share so many characteristics: they are generally quite young compared to other huge firms, they have changed the face of business, and for a long time they all had quite “fluffy” public images.
Fuelled by young, modern workforces in what was supposed to be the technical utopia of Silicon Valley, these firms initially set out with a vision for the world that was different – no more stuffy giant corporations, just people making technology that made the world a better place.
Unfortunately, things have not turned out quite that simply. Consumers, politicians, other businesses, and eventually the companies themselves have come to the realisation that huge profits, massive workforces, and even bigger market disruption, will quickly attract attention, and not all of it positive.
Big Tech, Big Problems
Recent events have made that clearer than ever for the big companies. Just last week, Google saw more than 20,000 staff members carry out an organised “walk out” in protest against revelations by the New York Times that senior executive and Android co-founder Andy Rubin had received a huge payout after he was investigated over sexual assault allegations.
As The Verge points out, Google has just under 100,000 employees around the world, meaning that more than 20% of its entire workforce took part in the walkout. And 20,000 people, in anyone’s books, is a lot of people – it’s twice the population of the City of London, for instance.
In a Medium blog post about the walkout, organiser Meredith Whittaker says this: “We walked out because tech industry business as usual is failing us. Google paying $90M to Andy Rubin is one example among thousands, which speak to a company where abuse of power, systemic racism, and unaccountable decision-making are the norm.
“From Maven, to Dragonfly, to a $90M sexual harassment bonus, it’s clear that we need real structural change, not adjustments to the status quo.” That final sentiment is echoed throughout the protestors’ statement, which also says that employees walked out to “protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace that doesn’t work for everyone”.
That’s one of the key complaints against Silicon Valley culture and the way that big tech has developed – that despite its progressive image, it only serves a select group of people: the same group that big business has always helped, critics argue.
And in that statement, Whittaker references Project Maven, the highly controversial military artificial intelligence program that employees signed a mass petition against. In that petition, staff implored Google not to renew the contract, saying: “Google should not be in the business of war.”
The petition, which came in the form of an open letter to CEO Sundar Pichai, continues: “This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US government in military surveillance — and potentially lethal outcomes — is not acceptable.”
Of course, it is not only Google that has had problems, and it is not only company employees that have kicked up a fuss. Facebook has taken a major blow in terms of its level of trust following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which continues to have repercussions in politics and elections.
That scandal was, at its core, about trust and data. Facebook, the accusations say, had not done enough to protect its users’ data, and as such they had been the target of political campaigns that may have influenced the result of elections and the EU referendum in the UK.
The Business Model
But it’s not just the inherently controversial things that are creating problems for these companies. Their business models – which tend to revolve around the use of data – are difficult for many to swallow. They have grown at such a rate, and often pay relatively little tax, that governments are starting to take aim squarely at the world of big tech.
In the 2018 UK budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a digital services tax (DST). The text of that announcement says: “The DST applies a 2% tax on the revenues of specific digital business models where their revenues are linked the participation of UK users.
“The tax will apply to: search engines; social media platforms; and online marketplaces. That is because the government considers these business models derive significant value from the participation of their users.” It’s quite clear from that, then, that it’s aimed at the big tech companies, and that the UK government believes they should contribute more.
Though these developments could be seen in a negative way, and they undoubtedly do represent challenges for the big companies, they could also be a sign of the growing maturity and development of the market as a whole and of the big tech companies in particular. They have become, whether they like it or not, giant companies, and have all the responsibilities that that entails.
What their challenges also demonstrate is that the people working within them are still the brightest and the best – that’s something that hasn’t changed, from their inception up until now. And as long as they keep holding the giants accountable, the tech world will keep benefiting from their existence.