Big Tech’s Kryptonite: a woman like Ida Tarbell
In an age when strong female role models are celebrated, it is surprising how little attention is paid to Ida Tarbell.
Ida took down a monopoly. Her actions led to the implementation of anti-trust laws in the US and the establishment of the Fair Trade Commission in 1914.
She came from a middle-class background but her life was closely linked to the first billionaire in history.
Standard Oil, JD Rockefeller’s baby, grew up amidst the hustle and bustle of the US oil business of the 1800s. Oil was an unregulated, fast moving industry, which was going through major technological change. It was similar to the internet’s early years.
The company ruled its vertical, oil, like Amazon rules online retail and Facebook rules social media. It colluded with the railroads like Google and Apple are doing with search, according to the regulators
Ida Tarbell wrote the business classic, The History of Standard Oil, driven by the fact that her Father’s business had been destroyed by Rockerfeller. By the end of the two-year serialization of the book in 1904, Rockefeller had become the most universally despised mogul in US history.
The public demanded change. And politicians like Theodore Roosevelt had to be seen to be doing something.
And therein lies the problem with the current discussion about the break-up of Big Tech.
The average person in the street just does not care that much about what Apple and Google have been doing.
Fortunes have been made in Silicon Valley by mining our data, invading our privacy and selling us overpriced hardware but it has not caused a groundswell of resentment. The anti-trust case against the two tech companies will be no different.
First, we have been conditioned to believe that Silicon Valley is, for the most part, a force for good. The leaders of Silicon Valley excel at controlling the narrative. They cultivate an image of being innovators, not mercenary business people. Even when PR issues arise, they handle them much better than monopolists from the past. Rockefeller had disdain for PR people; Sheryl Sandberg tells us to “lean in.”
No one is holding them to account either. There is no Ida Tarbell equivalent in the today’s press. Rather, the media fawns over them. It seems to respect their privacy even though a former Google CEO told us that privacy is no longer important for the general public.
Their products are also often free (think Zero Price Effect) and if the products do cost a premium, they have become associated with social status. NYU Professor, Scott Galloway, argues having the latest iPhone indicates to the opposite sex you are a worthy mate.
But such reasons do not get to the heart of it.
When Rockefeller destroyed competitors in the late 1800s, it was easy to see the devastation he caused. Businesses were lost. Families were destroyed. Children went hungry.
With Big Tech, the problems are just not that obvious. A lot of transgressions, especially on the internet, happen behind the scenes. Our data is sold without us knowing and sophisticated algorithms try to modify our behavior subtly. Above all, consumers still do not realize they are the product and that the deal they have made with tech is inherently unfair.
Anti competitive moves often take the form of a huge buy out of a fledgling start-up with a disruptive piece of technology. A founder, however idealistic, finds it hard to say no to a life-changing check. An exit by a young company is celebrated by the media as another win for capitalism. Few point out that it also sucks oxygen out of true innovation.
The movement against Big Tech is gaining momentum, to be fair, but there is a long way to go for any real change to happen.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 highlighted two things. Technology is not neutral and a huge amount of data is collected about us without us being aware. But there was no sea change of consumer behavior after the event.
The drumbeat around regulation also gets louder but the regulators will have little effect. The case against Google and Apple will stall and the share prices will recover, if they even go down that much. Anti trust cases were hard to win with main street industries. They are even harder to win now, especially with a well resourced team of lawyers on the other side of the table.
So what will drive change?
The development of a new technology that completely changes the way things are done. Blockchain might provide the architecture for a different way of attributing value on the internet, for example.
The Big 4 could start eating away at each other. This seems to be happening, already. Amazon is increasing market share in digital advertising. Google seems to be considering a big push into e-commerce through youtube.
But perhaps, what we really need is an angry public. Misuse of data around elections will not cut it. Something more nefarious needs to happen to trigger them.
Unfortunately, we would still lack an Ida Tarbell to create true awareness. The role requires tenacity, incredible intellect and compassion. Amy Coney Barrett would be perfect for the role but she will soon be busy with even more pressing matters!