A matter of trust
Is Google too powerful? The US Department of Justice – which filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google on Tuesday – seems to think so. The antitrust case reflects the growing concern about the power wielded by big technology companies; a power which has only been strengthened by the rapid pace at which our lives have been moving online in recent months. Although the case focuses on Google’s alleged anti-competitive practices – including the claim that the company had unfairly made its search engine the default tool on a range of devices and platforms, making it impossible for rivals to compete – the concern reaches much further.
What of the rapid disintegration of the concept of privacy? It has now become routine for our most sensitive personal data to be traded for commercial gains, while we accept that our digital footprint exists and persists for decades largely outside of our control. When it comes to the internet, free rarely means free, and often means we are the product being sold. In other words, the data that we are giving out freely is immensely valuable to businesses and governments and we can no longer afford to be ignorant of how giant tech companies actually make money.
And what of the trust we used to place in our democratic institutions and their counterpowers; freedom of speech and a free press? The erosion of these principles is accelerating, as evidenced by the live case study unfolding in front of our eyes that is the US election campaign. We can only watch as the wackiest conspiracy theories proliferate and travel on social media at lightning pace, sometimes spread by the US president himself.
Online movement QAnon has become the poster child of this trend, with frightening, real-life, violent consequences, while the relentless disinformation campaigns propagated by Russian troll farms and their innumerable fake accounts continue to undermine democracy. Truth has become an increasingly elusive concept with devastating political consequences to the point that established media have taken on the task to educate the general public over the difference between fake and verified information.
This matters to business as a climate of mistrust and undermined confidence can be immensely damaging to the economy and its long-term recovery. It also matters because it leaves a vacuum of responsibility which needs to be filled and an expectation that the best companies will be the ones that rise to the challenge of rebuilding better. As political leadership continues to falter, we are likely to see the emergence of new authoritative figures from the world of business.