Dr. Richard Smith

How to Curb Big Tech Influence

The growing influence technology companies have on society needs to be curbed and hopefully the recent antitrust suit filed against Google will have a positive effect, Dr. Richard Smith said. The CEO of the Foundation for the Study of Cycles, Dr. Smith has been involved in fintech for 20 years as an investor and researcher, where he has studied the effect of previous antitrust actions on American industry.

“People are paying more attention to the increasing awareness that something’s amiss with regards to the influence that companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are having,” he began.

Really, it’s unavoidable, the discussion is everywhere. And even if you don’t pay any attention to it, many of you have to recognize there is something wrong when you check your phone before even hitting the john in the morning. A “beep” sounds on the subway and 50 people check their pockets, that is if the phone isn’t already in their hands.

Then there was the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which Dr. Smith credited with bringing laser focus to some of the key damaging aspects of big tech misbehavior.

“The Social Dilemma was a validation (of key research),” Dr. Smith said. “It was incredible to hear from the insiders in the industry.”

Governments have noticed, and while they have often been hesitant to act, and delivered a punchless approach when summoning the tech lords to Washington, they have to take notice of the growing control and market share big tech companies have in their respective sectors.

“Real monopoly is the ability to influence people and populations at scale through the ability to aggregate data and the ability to apply unparalleled computing power to that data,” Dr. Smith said. “They influence the behavior of millions of people.”

Dr. Smith said he definitely is not against technology. He has invested in it for many years and believes in its profound benefits to new economies.

The problem is technology has advanced far faster than any questioning of its possible detriments. By the time society and legislators did that, tech companies had a massive head start and more than a decade of knowledge in how to harvest our digital exhaust in order to predict our future behavior.

“Privacy has been on the back burner for 20 years now,” Dr. Smith said.

Google’s customers aren’t the people doing conducting searches, Dr. Smith said. They are the advertisers for whom Google is completely incentivized to deliver results to. By predicting behavior they can offer more accurate advertisements to customers and more revenue to the bank. The next step is to influence behavior so you can bring in even more.

“To deliver different search results based on different zip codes and political biases is something unprecedented,” Dr. Smith said.

Our brains are hackable, and Google, Facebook and others have proven it for two decades. Given their head start over government and it will take a concerted effort, and plenty of political courage, to tackle the problem.

But there’s a hitch. 

“That governments don’t focus on privacy rights for its citizens at this point is the real issue,” Dr. Smith said.

Google began coming of age in the years after 9/11 when the federal focus wasn’t on privacy, Dr. Smith said. They needed strong surveillance if they were to stop the next big attack. Other countries were doing the same, with some researching how they could leverage it for geopolitical advantage. While the Cold War featured a physical arms race, we are now having a technological one.

And that means painful discussions need to be held about the future of democracy and what a healthy media role looks like within such a democracy. Google, Facebook and their ilk are powerful media companies whose reach, even inside the human mind, blows away the influence of television, radio and print media.

“We’ve gone from citizens to consumers,” Dr. Smith said, while discussing investor Roger McNamee’s comments in the Social Dilemma. “Citizens are in an active state while consumers are passive.”

Consider the public discourse around the United States federal election where many people seemingly have lost the ability to question what they are being told. The lack of desire to seek out multiple sources of information, to weigh those sources and to produce an opinion is hurting democracy.

Legislators in some regions are trying to control Big Tech’s influence. The European Union has its GDPR legislation while California has introduced its Consumer Privacy Act. Many individuals don’t seem to care because they are either too lazy to educate themselves, they are addicted to social media, or for some other reason they don’t care if companies use their data. The opportunity to share jokes with friends from high school and to keep up with the Kardashians is a worthy trade-off for them.

The first two of those reasons are cause enough for governments to get involved and Dr. Smith has an interesting idea for how they can. Why not treat server farms as public utilities just like electricity and water? Have a public option for mass computing power. In addition to loosening the control from a few powerful companies, it lowers the barriers to entry for new startups.

We also need to look at key laws in a different light and update for the twenty-first century, Dr. Smith believes. Google, because they don’t charge for their services, is unlike Standard Oil so, yes, there is no price fixing.

Big Tech is operating within existing antitrust legislation and that is the problem, Dr. Smith explained. Once again the law is behind as the tech companies expect new, updated laws and have likely been preparing for them for many years.

In addition to legislation, government will have to educate, Dr. Smith said. Take money from producers and create a program which shows people how to safely and responsibly interact with electronic media. Post warnings like there are on cigarette packages. Teach people to think critically again.

“Have warnings on social media that it’s known to increase suicide rates in teenage girls,” Dr. Smith said. “It’s that serious.”

And while we’re looking at root causes, let’s look at how startups are funded, Dr. Smith advised. Entrepreneurs and and venture capitalists have to look into the future instead of saying they don’t see an immediate market for it. Much like how Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin thought decades ago, so should the truly visionary entrepreneurs, today.

“If that’s the way you want to think (short-term gain) you are going to be left behind,” Dr. Smith said. “Think about what you want for your kids and your grandkids…That’s the question VCs need to ask themselves.

“Ultimately the solutions are going to come from people who see these problems and create new alternative networks and demonstrate there’s value in bringing people into a new paradigm.”

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