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InfoQ Homepage News How Big Tech Lost Its Way - Regulation and Freedom

How Big Tech Lost Its Way - Regulation and Freedom

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Technology plays an ever increasing part in our lives, yet big tech seems to be running out of control, showing behavior that is at odds with its principles. Regulation is starting to develop, but laws are rarely applied. The leaders of big tech companies should realise their job is culture. At QCon London 2023, Andy Walker gave a talk about how big tech lost its way.

Walker mentioned that the focus of big tech has changed over the years. If you go back to the original founders’ letter for Google, the kind of company the're trying to build is very specific. They want it to be a different sort of company where they are able to invest for the long term and balance being profitable with social good, Walker said. They want to do the best for their people. Walker mentioned that if you were to look at the founders’ letters for Amazon or Meta, you’d see something similar.

Over the years these companies have become incredibly profitable but are, perhaps, coming to the end of their period of extraordinary growth, Walker mentioned. Now we’re seeing people being fired en masse simply by cutting off access which seems to be completely at odds with these principles:

There was a time when you could reasonably argue that Big Tech weren’t just big corporations, but I don’t think you could do that any more.

Walker mentioned that a large part of the problem is that regulation hasn’t developed over the years. He mentioned that we’ve seen the European bloc put together GDPR in conjunction with the tech companies and put together a really reasonable set of laws for privacy:

It’s still open as to whether they’ll wind up being applied but the legal framework is there and it has teeth (10 million Euros or 2% of your global turnover).

Walker argued that the leaders of big tech companies should realise their job is culture. He suggested that they create an environment where people can do their best work.

When you’re really senior you don’t get to be the one being innovative - your job is to make it possible for that to happen.

InfoQ interviewed Andy Walker about regulation, freedom of speech, and what the future will bring for big tech.

InfoQ: What’s the current state of regulation?

Andy Walker: The laws to hold individuals (and companies) to account like GDPR haven’t followed suit. It’s very rare that people are pursued for what they say or do online, and we find ourselves between Governments who maybe don’t understand the issues and also don’t want to touch it, and the big tech companies whose ability to hold people to account comes down to moderation and blocking accounts. Unfortunately, losing your account on the Internet, unless you have millions of followers, is not a big deal. This leads to the online world feeling like it’s lacking in accountability.

InfoQ: What are your thoughts on freedom of speech and how big tech supports it?

Walker: Here’s where the lack of accountability really begins to bite. You can take an extreme viewpoint, such as Elon Musk, where freedom of speech is an absolute. However, we know that this is not the case. If I go into a busy street and start abusing everyone who walks past there are likely to be consequences.

There’s also the problem that controversial viewpoints are highly profitable because they result in a lot of engagement. In the same way that newspapers get readers by taking a polarised view, online the same thing happens. Only more so.

I think that Freedom of Speech is a good thing, but the thing that we forget to tack onto the end of that is Freedom of Speech without accountability is a very bad thing. We’ve seen that online. We’ve seen that in our political systems where truthfulness seems less and less important.

InfoQ: What do you hope that the future will bring?

Walker: I would like to see better regulation particularly across international borders. I’d like to see the industry realising that carrying truthful information matters and that protecting their users matters.

Top down innovation isn’t real and won’t solve the problems we face with the Pandora’s box of technology that we’ve opened. Tech companies should be building tools to make their users’ lives better as a path to making their shareholders happy, not to extract value at the expense of their users for their shareholders.

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