Accountability, customer service and the Masters of our Universe
Posted on 5th August 2020
Facebook is the go-to place for hundreds of millions worldwide. Google is the source of the vast majority of our searches. Lockdown has driven us all to increase our use of Amazon. And Apple, the inventor of the smartphone that made much of this possible, controls its App store, some might say, like a not very benevolent dictator. These are incredibly important companies, which is why last week’s grilling of their CEOs by a sub-committee of the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives was such a major event.
Yards of online column inches* were devoted to this session. The hearing was about potential antitrust law violations and featured members of Congress in the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law. Both sides of the US political landscape were represented and while some indulged in partisan grandstanding, there were also a lot of pertinent and indeed forthright questions which made Messrs Zuckerberg, Bezos, Cook and Pichai – the Masters of our Online Universe - clearly uncomfortable.
Does anyone really care? So long as Facebook (Instagram et al) provides a channel for friends to communicate (even as they are assailed by the endlessly targeted ads) then what’s the problem? Ditto if your Amazon parcels arrive on time. So long as Facebook et al deliver what they promise, then what’s the issue?
Well, in my view, there is an issue. Moreover, the problem isn’t simple, because it’s slightly different for each of the four companies concerned. That said, at its heart (and this does apply to all four) it’s about whether they have monopoly powers and, even if you don’t accept this argument, whether they are consolidating the powers they do have to suppress competition and warp markets. CNET news reported that David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island and the chairman of the subcommittee, said, "This hearing has made one fact clear to me. These companies as they exist today have monopoly power. Some need to be broken up. All need to be properly regulated and held accountable."
This, I feel, gets to the nub of the matter. Accountability is something that we expect of every organisation. Anti-competitive practices stem from lack of accountability, because there is a feeling that no-one can stop them.
Accountability also involves customer service. Amazon, generally in my experience, provides first-class customer service, as does Apple and, to a lesser extent, Google. Facebook, on the other hand, makes it well-nigh impossible to solve any problem should one emerge and brooks no dissent once its mighty algorithms have detected any untoward activity, even where none exists. I have several friends who have suffered recently, including a 30-something woman whose Facebook account was closed by Zuckerberg’s minions because they said she was not old enough to be on the platform. All her photos on Facebook and Instagram (which demonstrated clearly she was not 10 years old) are now lost and there is no-one she can talk to about it at Facebook and nothing she can do about it.
In conventional online publishing, whether it’s my football blog, the Be-IT job pages or a newspaper’s website, anything that is wrong, factually incorrect or capable of causing harm can be challenged and an individual held responsible. This does not happen with social media. That’s why I do wonder if, in the medium-term, Facebook is the most vulnerable of the big four firms who were hauled over the coals by the US government. With Microsoft looking likely to acquire TikTok and potentially pose a serious challenge, Facebook will need all the friends it can get. Based on last week’s hearing, it doesn’t seem to have too many in the US government.
Scott Bentley, Be-IT
*Incidentally, the size of a news story is one of those things, like the weight of new-born babies, the distances on our roads and the glasses we drink beer from, that are resolutely stuck in the imperial past. It’s a wonder they haven’t been cancelled as a hate crime on social media… (this is a joke in case you didn’t realise).
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