Big tech is on the spot as the lines between commercial and political begin to blur
Two months ago, on July 30th, the CEOs of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon testified before US congress in a hearing largely focusing on the implications of antitrust law in their business operations. While governments have historically been slow to keep up with the rapid-fire innovations of big tech, this very public and intense questioning was a warning sign that perhaps the major actors in the digital world were not to remain independent of the larger picture for long.
Businesses largely try to remain impartial of politics – it is a practical strategy, as well as a professional courtesy. However, there are skeletons in the closet for the likes of YouTube and Facebook, which have come under fire for their social media algorithmic promotion of filter bubbles which have arguably been incredibly impactful on politics in the past few years. The clock has been ticking for some time now on how long they could truly retain Zuckerberg’s line of “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies”.
A change of tone
Cue the looming November presidential elections, and a change of tone. Facebook has announced that it will “take aggressive and exceptional measures to ‘restrict the circulation of content’ on its platform if November’s presidential election descends into chaos or violent civic unrest”, with head of Global Affairs Nick Clegg adding, “We have acted aggressively in other parts of the world where we think that there is real civic instability and we obviously have the tools to do that [again]”.
Facebook is not alone in entering the political fray. On the other side of the aisle, the latest development in the battle over TikTok in the US has seen Oracle, Walmart and ByteDance gain initial approval from Trump to start TikTok Global, with the President announcing that the three corporations would start a $5 billion fund for “a national commission to promote patriotic education”.
Meanwhile, companies from Facebook to Spotify have begun encouraging US users to register to vote. Spotify has partnered with HeadCount and is running its own ‘Fans First’ artist-led email campaigns to encourage users to register. While there is no political stance to the messaging itself, the implications of companies stepping in to encourage political participation are no small thing. NBA teams have also offered their stadiums as socially-distanced polling stations, as has Comcast Spectacor, owner and operator of the Wells Fargo Center and the Eagles Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
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However, Amazon has seemingly taken the alternative approach, with a recent story breaking that the company’s HR division, which is involved in mitigating the risk of unionisation of employees has been monitoring certain groups at risk of ‘activism’. This comes in the context of recent crackdowns, primarily sparked by lockdown-fuelled demands for improved working conditions.
Tectonic shifts in the big-tech world
While all of these more consumer-facing developments are occurring, the primacy of the App Store is being challenged. Back in August, Fortnite parent Epic Games introduced its own in-game payment system, violating the terms of the App Store and as a result being banned from both that platform as well as the Google Play Store. The ensuing #freefortnite campaign came about so quickly that it was indicative of a larger play being afoot.
Then, this Thursday the Coalition for App Fairness – a non-profit, comprised of players such as Epic Games, Tinder owner Match Group and Spotify – has begun making moves to pressure the Apple App Store and others. It primarily claims the primary app stores collect excessive commissions from developers and stifle competition to their own propositions, and it may potentially move to develop new cross-platform, proposition-agnostic ecosystems.
A changed relationship between the professional and the personal
Despite their best intentions – and there have been too many examples to mention in recent months – to remain politically impartial, the big tech companies are facing a time of reckoning. The upcoming presidential election means as much for their corporate futures as it does for the employees who work for them, and the cataclysmic change initiated by the coronavirus pandemic in all realms—cultural, social, corporate, political—has begun to force their hands.
With an undercurrent of threat to their market primacy, as illustrated by the Coalition for App Fairness and the recent congressional hearings, and social currents too powerful to ignore sweeping not just the US but the world at large demanding they take stances, the era of impartiality is over. These companies are looking at a very different future they must navigate, one in which businesses will increasingly be unable to clearly separate themselves from the social or political forces unfolding around them.