Big Tobacco. Big Oil. Big Pharma. And, now, Big Tech. Too big for public good?
Admiration is turning into alarm, even hostility in some quarters with Big Tech seen as an existential threat to humanity, our politics, economy, society, culture, even civilisation.
Big Tech, aka the Big Five of the corporate jungle—Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft—are like the big five beasts: magnificent, but powerful predators, preying and profiteering from people’s personal information, habits, behaviour, relationships and the last frontier—our brains. Big Tech is an extractive industry just like the oil and steel, mining humans not natural resources.
Big Tech visionaries grew out of the anti-establishment Californian hippie counterculture. But, now critics see them as callous capitalists whose tech utopia resemble an AI-run dystopia with no government and no limits—neither on capitalism nor on life. Tech titans invest in immortality and man-machine fusion.
Like tobacco, oil and pharmaceuticals, Big Tech is addictive—euphemistically called “persuasive”. The enormous benefits brought by Big Tech is beyond dispute. But, experts worry about the depth of its insidious control, its sheer dominance, its accumulation of unprecedented wealth and power, without responsibility, checks, balances and safeguards. American Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis says, “People have as little need of oligarchy in business as in politics.”
Big Tech is under attack for becoming monopolies, destroying capitalism by crushing competition. Sounds familiar? This charge comes in addition to all its other sins—enabling foreign meddling in domestic politics, trolling, spreading fake news and accounts, causing job and tax losses. The $3 trillion Big Tech pays peanuts in taxes to host nations by headquartering in low-tax jurisdictions.
Innovation drives Big Tech’s spectacular growth. But, a deluge of books and articles outline how tax avoidance also fuel their dominance. Amazon offers low prices by resisting taxes. Journalist Brad Stone who wrote Amazon’s history described this dodging as “one of the company’s biggest tactical advantages.” Helping Big Tech dodge taxes are the Big Four accounting firms that craft aggressive international corporate tax avoidance practices. Australian tax expert George Rozvany labels them “arguably the greatest vectors for tax injustice the world has ever seen”.
Beholden to lobbyists’ donations, parliamentarians pass corporate tax avoidance laws, so it is legal. But, is it moral, ethical, and fair? Avoidance has resulted in huge tax revenue loss, forcing governments to slash public expenditure, hurting the underprivileged and widening wealth disparity. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, corporate bailouts, tax cuts and avoidance aggravated anti-establishment sentiments leading to social polarisation and unexpected political outcomes.
Tax avoidance contributes to stockpile of profits bigger than national GDPs, with which Big Tech acquires top companies in new markets and new industries, and grows bigger. Progressive think tank Roosevelt Institute states “markets are now more concentrated and less competitive than at any point” since the roaring 1920s that preceded the Great Depression. Resembling boa constrictors coiling the globe, Amazon swallowed Whole Foods, Facebook gobbled WhatsApp and Google gulped British AI firm DeepMind and many other companies. Last year, The Economist, the champion of free enterprise, warned, “High profits across a whole economy can be a sign of sickness. They can signal the existence of firms more adept at siphoning wealth off than creating it afresh.”
There is talk of regulating Big Tech, like you do with public utilities because they have become so big and integral to our lives. So, how does Big Tech react to any impediments to their unbridled freedom and growth? They increase funding to their lobbyists.
Pratap is an author and journalist.