Scholarly Tech Critics: The technology industry has long had skeptics in the academy, but over the past five years, those researchers have landed many more blows, from many different angles. They’ve exploded myths, coined new language for problems, and created rallying cries for those inside and outside the industry. Cataloging them all would be impossible, but this sample gets at the breadth of the critiques: Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here; Zeynep Tufekci in The New York Times; Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants; Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction; Siva Vaidhyanathan’s anti-paeans to Google and Facebook; Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society; Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression; Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation; Malkia Cyril’s powerful essays; and Jean Twenge’s alarming work on youths and their relationship to technology.
Apple: Of the Big Tech companies, Apple is the one that has the most at stake in the regulatory battles. On the one hand, it needs the other giants to produce the apps that make an iPhone worth buying. On the other hand, anything that reduces its perceived value—such as, perhaps, corporate or government surveillance—is bad. Apple can take the moral high ground in some ways because it doesn’t use data in the same way as surveillance-capitalism companies such as Google and Facebook, as Zuboff points out. And it has now taken to highlighting its more privacy-protective approaches and building new ones, which calls attention to the mountains of data its rivals use more intensively.
Oracle and Other Business-Software Companies: Oracle has long been a Google enemy, in part because Google gives away the kinds of products that Oracle sells to big companies and governments. (They’re also locked in an ugly lawsuit over software copyrights.) The company has helped fund a particularly hard-hitting and effective operation called the Google Transparency Project out of the Campaign for Accountability, which has traditionally gone after Republicans for ethical violations.* The Transparency Project, which is funded by Oracle and other Google rivals, drew massive attention to Google’s remarkable funding of scholars and academics.
Yelp and Other Consumer-Protection Organizations: Google has also drawn the ire of other competitors, which are mad at Google because of its presentation of search results. That group is headlined by Yelp, which created a new lobbying campaign to criticize Google on antitrust matters called Focus on the User. Its partner in the effort is Fight for the Future, an organization that shares some ancestry with MoveOn and other liberal, internet-interested activists.
The Chinese Internet Industry: For years, American internet companies were dominant around the world. That’s no longer as true. The Chinese internet is enormous—and with ByteDance’s TikTok, it’s begun to make inroads into Western markets. As Korean and Japanese internet companies have discovered, beating Western companies on their home turf is hard, but China has cultivated a plausible alternative ecosystem for messaging, social media, and other apps. It’s not WhatsApp or nothing as long as there’s WeChat.
Big Tech may survive this scuffle with only a couple of lumps, à la Microsoft in the 1990s. Or something much bigger may be in the offing. But one thing is for sure: After disrupting so many industries and having created so many enemies in consolidating control of the internet, it’s going to be difficult for tech companies to find friends.
* This post previously mischaracterized Oracle’s role in the Google Transparency Project.