Taming Big Tech: New Battle Lines, New Strategies

Credit: Flickr \ Jernej Furman

Bryn Jones reports on Sunak’s “hands off” approach and the strengthening of corporate hegemony over our lives

According to Yanis Varoufakis we have all become techno-serfs, shackled by our online communications and purchases through algorithms of “the Cloud”- a world owned and controlled by the overlords of the Big Tech companies: a Big Five, or Six, recently dubbed “MAMAA”:  Microsoft, Apple, Meta (ex-Facebook), Amazon and Alphabet (ex-Google). The mega-rich leaders of “Big Tech” companies, several espousing right-wing libertarian politics, now dominate what was once a public “commons” – funded from state resources and operated for and by public bodies. The likes of Uber or Amazon have effectively privatised and almost monopolised chunks of such services as transportation or logistics. Social media companies have privatized and centralised the less tangible, but far more significant public sphere. Elon Musk’s professed aim is to make his Twitter – now “X” – social media channel an alternative, digital “town hall”.

The basis of their immense power over our online lives can be gleaned from the Artificial Intelligence (AI) moral panic. AI technology climaxes Big Tech’s gradual takeover of information processing/sharing and decision-making through digital technologies. Two recent and related events illuminate this dominance. On November 2nd, at the international forum to monitor and assess more powerful AI models, His Majesty’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak met Elon Musk, the richest person on the planet and owner of X, Tesla automobiles and the aerospace satellites company Space X. Who, exactly, was granting an audience to whom here? Though hyped by Tory media as a decisive step towards controlling development of an incipient AI monster, closer scrutiny of Sunak’s tete a tete, suggests it was a smoke and mirrors sideshow to the main outcome. Musk got what he and other Big Tech moguls want. Big Tech will remain the main developer and tester of the new “General AI” technology, with little government interference, at least not from the UK. Big Tech shrugs off nation states’ attempts to shape digital futures.

The second episode is the sacking of CEO Sam Altman from the board of the pioneering OpenAI Global. Technically, this is a subsidiary of “OpenAI” – a not-for-profit organisation established to safeguard potential abuses in the advanced models being developed. Initially funded from sources such as Amazon, Microsoft and Elon Musk, OpenAI Global’s managers seem to have been frustrated by the public welfare oversight from its not-for-profit superior. Though the precise trigger for Altman’s sacking is unclear, reports suggest that one grievance was concerns that the subsidiary was “commercializing advances before assessing their risks”. OpenAI Global managers may also have eyed the potential commercial value of floating it as a separate, independent company: with a potential stock market value of $86 billion. Following his sacking, Microsoft recruited Altman to work on its own advanced AI models. After the OpenAI board about-turned and reinstated him as CEO of Global, a Microsoft representative, in an “observational’ role, was added to the reconstituted board. In this tug -of-war between corporate interests and societal welfare Big Tech profiteers are once again pulling away from public interest accountability.

More advanced “general” AI could worsen misuses of existing online facilities: misinformation, bullying and propagandising in social relationships and political arenas, shaping election results, opposing environmental reforms, moulding consumer attitudes and fuelling gender and race hate campaigns. General AI could intensify these abuses and turbocharge anti-democratic movements and interests. As MIT’s Technology Review explains, the biggest businesses are already “trying to shore up their dominance by wielding their considerable economic and political power” with threats and lobbying in Europe and the USA, pushing for restrictive licensing and embedding of Big Tech “fellows” in Congress. To prevent classification of their workers as employees rather than independent contractors, ride-sharing and delivery corporations like Uber and Lyft spent $205 million on campaigns against California’s Proposition 22.

Capitalism’s metamorphosis into “surveillance capitalism” – your private information for our gizmos and services, has also destroyed traditional patterns of employment (no Big Tech main operation is properly unionised), perverted consumer “sovereignty”, and empowered ruthless corporate oligarchs who can subvert democratic polities. There are also huge public costs from Big Tech firms’ tax avoidance through their use of shell companies and location of liabilities to low-tax states like Ireland.

Then there are the carbon inequalities of the mega wealthy elites’ massive consumption of energy: through super yachts, private jet travel, as well as their business’s electrical infrastructure – servers and the like. The “Big Five” tech firms consume as much electricity as the population of New Zealand and more than the much-maligned airline industry. The AI challenge is, therefore, only the latest front in the march of corporate hegemony over democracy and civil society.

The scale of these misdeeds demands institutional reforms, but governments mostly focus on consumer protection legislation: to curb abuse on social media, enhance data privacy and minimise suffocation by personalised algorithmic recommendation. Governments in the EU and the UK look to competition policy; namely the ways that tech giants freeze out (smaller) competitors offering rival applications, from their platforms. But broader consumer choice in applications will not tackle the roots and full range of corporate power.

China has been more ruthless. It has quarantined its tech moguls like Jack Ma – owner of Amazon equivalent Alibaba –from mass media, curtailed the autonomy of their businesses and simply banned manipulative techniques and algorithms. (Wired Magazine, 22nd February 2022). Vested interests and liberal ideology would probably stifle such measures here. State surveillance activity is so dependent on Big Tech resources that their threats of non-cooperation with governments could also block radical policies. Softer measures, like stricter regulation, have been mooted. However, arms-length regulatory systems in other sectors fail because of prosecutions that get bogged down in litigation and “regulatory capture”. Striving to be impartial and business-friendly, regulators adopt the mind-set of the firms being regulated and sometimes even employ ex-industry executives as regulators. Business commentators commend the UK’s new digital regulatory model as “participative regulation” unlike the EU’s allegedly “rigid” list of prohibitions. ‘Nuff said?

The US could renew anti-trust powers once used to break up national monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T in previous eras. But Big Tech operations are virtually global. There could be, however, a subtler, more indirect strategy based on reforming Big Tech companies’ financial governance. Four or five of the biggest investment fund owners, such as Blackrock, dominate at Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. However, investor influence is balanced by the similarly sized holdings of the founding entrepreneurs or their allies: respectively Tim Cooke, retiree Bill Gates and the semi-retired Jeff Bezos. Other Big Tech oligarchs, especially Sergei Brin and Larry Page at Alphabet, Zuckerberg at Twitter and Musk at Tesla, have virtually complete control of their businesses because of “tiered” share structures. They own a separate class of shares with higher voting power than those of external investors. Mark Zuckerberg has 40% of Meta’s total stock but his Class B shares each count for ten votes while each external, Class A, share qualifies for only one vote. Zuckerberg’s ownership of 99% of Class B easily outnumbers the combined vote of all other shareholders. Musk took a more forceful route after borrowing millions to buy a controlling, 79%, stake in Twitter and rebranding it as X. He turned it into a private company. Which allows Musk to decide who becomes an investor and what financial and operational information is made public.

Public ownership as nationalisation is also problematic. Even ignoring government debt restrictions, not even the well-endowed US Treasury has sufficient funds to buy out Big Tech shareholdings. The nearly $5.7tn combined value of Apple and Microsoft exceeds the federal government’s entire 2023 revenue of $4.44 trillion. A borrow-to-buy policy would balloon the already massive $26.51 trillion of US public debt. However, co-ownership stakes in the major platform companies via autonomous public trust(s), or similar vehicles would be cheaper and could be organized with democratic multi-stakeholder representation from workers, consumers, government officials, the general public, etc. Indeed, some of these stakes could be simply transferred from investments currently managed on behalf of pension, insurance and educational schemes by the giant Blackrock, State Street and Vanguard funds. Government-backed stakeholder bodies could then press for public interest principles and more democratic governance – including abolition of shares with unequal voting rights. Such changes would depend on concerted international co-operation between the USA, EU and countries like the UK. But isn’t eventual emancipation preferable to a mere loosening of the digital serfs’ shackles?

Bryn Jones
Bryn Jones is the author of Corporate Power and Responsible Capitalism? Towards Social Accountability and co-editor of Alternatives to Neoliberalism: Towards Equality and Democracy., He is a member of Chartist EB.

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