The term “techlash” has been around for awhile, but get ready to see and hear it more and more. The company that stands at the center of this “technology backlash” is no doubt Facebook, with the world’s largest social network experiencing its worst week in memory amid snowballing revelations around its relationship with Cambridge Analytica. Some 50 million people had their Facebook profiles harvested so this UK-based data analytic company could target them with political ads and influence elections, not least the last U.S. presidential vote. The scandal has already cost Facebook $37 billion in market value.
But another U.S. tech giant also has big questions to answer following the fatal accident involving a Uber self-driving car and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, believed to be the first of its kind. Uber’s decision to pull its autonomous vehicles from the roads is a major setback. “Hard days for the tech industry” indeed, as noted in this headline from Süddeutsche Zeitung.
But beyond these two companies, it’s a form of Silicon Valley imperialism that’s ultimately in the spotlight. So the techlash is sure to come with a foreign accent.
Part of it, naturally, is a question of money. France and its President Emmanuel Macron are already leading European calls to close the loopholes that have allowed U.S. tech giants such as Google, Facebook or Apple to minimize the amount of tax they pay in Europe. And on Wednesday, the European Commission is expected to unveil a plan to tax digital companies where they generate revenue, instead of where their headquarters are located, a move that The New York Times says is “setting off a fight between the United States and Europe.”
Mistrust, at the very least, is indeed advised to anybody concerned about their privacy.
But beyond the cash, there’s also a deeper mistrust toward the way tech companies exploit private information. There is particularly strong opposition across the Old Continent, not least in Germany, where the past experience of life under both fascist and communist regimes has taught the public to be cautious when it comes to data. Reacting to the recent news about Uber and Facebook, Süddeutsche Zeitung’s reporter Johannes Kuhn writes that on top of showing the need for more regulation, both cases illustrate “the loss of confidence in tech companies,” with a growing number of people wondering “whether companies are taking adequate responsibility for the consequences of their technology or whether, in their adamant path to growth, they’ve lost — or jettisoned — control over it.”
Another disturbing story from Germany, this time published today in Die Welt about whether Facebook listens to conversations to sell targeted advertising — something the company has denied doing and which is often referred to as a conspiracy theory — tends to show that mistrust, at the very least, is indeed advised to anybody concerned about their privacy.
The techlash against Facebook, however, goes beyond personal fears. Diogo Queiroz de Andrade, deputy executive editor of Portuguese dailyPúblico, writes on Tuesday that tackling Facebook and its excesses has become a question of preserving democracy. “The threat to our way of life is real and Facebook is part of the problem,” he writes. The social network can “no longer be seen as a mere entertainment platform, given that it’s the perfect tool to exploit fears, hatreds and insecurities, and that those who win are those who have the most money to spend to spread their advertisements.”
Is there a way to stop it? Yes, according to Andrade, but it will require the intervention of European governments, perhaps even of the European Union, which he says would be “instrumental in an increasingly necessary attack against the enemies of democracy.” And most importantly, it will require that people become aware of these dangers — and act. “It’s up to the citizens to inform themselves so they can avoid being manipulated,” Andrade writes. “By definition, nobody likes to be taken for a fool.” Yes, this is what a techlash sounds like.
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