If technology giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon face a common threat to their dominance, it probably lies in a single word: trust. In some respects, these companies are riding high. They have woven themselves into the fabric of our daily lives, making their services indispensable for daily tasks like keeping in touch with family and friends, watching TV and buying cat food. Revenues are up and profits are soaring.
But they have also drawn the attention of regulators in Europe and the US thanks to carelessness with consumer data and other problems. Facebook’s leaky data controls, for instance, let Cambridge Analytica mine the profiles of up to 87 million people in an attempt to swing elections. The social network has also had to beef up manual oversight to clamp down on the spread of fake news.
Google’s YouTube has likewise been implicated in the spread of political conspiracy theories. Not long ago, Amazon’s always-listening Echo speaker inadvertently recorded a family’s conversation at home — and then sent the recording to someone else.
Some of these issues are systemic; others may be little more than the growing pains of new technologies. What they all fuel, though, is a sense that technology may not always warrant the implicit faith we place in it.
Trust looms large in modern life. We still get on aeroplanes even though they sometimes come apart in flight. We go to hospitals even though medical errors sometimes kill patients. These services are too important to live without, despite the occasional disastrous error. But those industries are also heavily regulated because of the risks involved. Technology companies, by comparison, are largely unconstrained.
Trust issues could be especially acute for technology companies since their services are effectively omnipresent yet largely inscrutable. You can’t audit Google’s algorithm to see why it’s giving you certain search results the way you can watch your bank balance. You just have to trust that the company is upholding its promises.
Yet so far, such concerns don’t loom large for most consumers. “That trust is eroded, but the uncomfortable thing is no one really cares,” says Scott Galloway, a New York University marketing professor. “As long as they trust that technology will improve their lives, they don’t appear to care about the other stuff.”
A 2016 survey from the Pew Research Center, for instance, found that only 9 per cent of users were “very confident” that social media companies could protect their data. More than half had little or no confidence. Yet a January survey found that 69 per cent of US adults using social media, unchanged from 2016.
But tech giants have fewer worries about consumers defecting to their rivals, in part because they each do their best to lock users into their array of complementary apps and services. That doesn’t stop them from sniping at one another, of course.
History does offer a cautionary tale for tech companies that grow too complacent. Roughly a decade ago, Microsoft’s dominance in personal computers seemed impregnable, even after a bruising antitrust fight over its Windows monopoly. Then came the iPhone, which Microsoft ridiculed — at least until the mobile computing wave it unleashed swamped the Windows PC.
Could a similar shift today tap into underlying consumer discontent and topple today’s tech giants? Perhaps, although it’s not clear exactly how.
One possibility could involve blockchain, the technology that underlies bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies. Some enthusiasts have begun to talk about blockchain-based social networks that could operate without central authorities such as Facebook, which in theory could also minimise privacy risks. But that could take years if it comes to pass at all.