From revelations that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube helped Russian intelligence manipulate western elections, to Google’s record $5 billion antitrust fine for misusing Android, 2018 has been a year of scandal for tech’s big leaguers, that has eroded trust in its power for good.
Poor performances from CEOs in front of cameras and congressmen and women hasn’t helped. Mark Zuckerberg’s dead-eyed deflections are the go-to in this department–in the words of Kara Swisher, he and his company “have been working humanity’s last nerve for far too long now–but there are plenty other lowlights that the industry’s key players should strive to avoid in 2019 (Jack Dorsey, here’s looking at you).
“Over these 12 months our relationship with tech has both been darker and more muddy because it becomes increasingly clear that all the bright and shiny positive potentials of tech are at the risk of being darkened by forced misuse of data, manipulation, supervision, no respect of the citizen, no respect of individual rights,” EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager told Britain’s BBC this week.
The EU’s GDPR law has been decried in Silicon Valley, a place where government intervention into business is about as welcome as a kick to the groin. For tech to win back public trust, its luminaries must shed the idea they exist on a higher plain that states, stop breaking things before they get caught, and realize that people on the street–their users–often now equate tech companies with the robber barons of the Second Industrial Revolution, at the end of the 19th century.
Facebook usership among teens is in decline. More and more western users are facing up to a life without social media. The question is no longer if people can live without it, but how and when they will give up. That should worry everybody in the industry. History is littered with firms and sectors that sat still on declining numbers (just ask Yahoo, or Dell, or hundreds of other flashes in the digital pan).
If tech’s biggest companies can work with legislators and avoid the scandals that have hit them hard in 2018, 2019 could be a year in which the public speaks eagerly about adopting new technology, rather than first asking questions about its public benefit. If not, expect the clamor for Facebook, Google and co to be broken up to grow.