Coronavirus Is No Cure for Techlash

Big Tech tales that the Coronavirus Crisis somehow will mitigate their Techlash problem, totally miss the mark.

They miss that the crisis is not good and not about tech. They miss that to whom much is given, much is expected.

They miss how many other industries and companies have contributed and sacrificed during this crisis without expecting something in return.

Spontaneously this past week, a tech op-ed chorus broke out singing a new tune and tale, that the Coronavirus Crisis could benefit Big Tech and save it from much of the Techlash.

Consider: Coronavirus gives Big Tech an opportunity to shine – Axios 3-18-20; Has the coronavirus killed the Techlash? Wired 3-20-20; Big Tech has the cash to expand after crisis, Regulatory threat also likely to recede for now, FT 3-20-20; and What Techlash? Virus Could Remake Industry Giants Image, The Information 3-23-20.  

Like some catchy new tunes lyrics, these don’t make sense.

Why is the Coronavirus Crisis no cure for the Techlash?

First, Americans strong bipartisan views undergird the Techlash in the U.S.

Consider a recent Gallup poll of Americans published 3-11-20.

It found 77% of Americans think Google, Facebook, and Amazon have too much power. 74% are very concerned about misinformation on the Internet.

68% are very concerned about the privacy of their personal data stored by the Internet platforms. 59% believe elected officials and candidates pay too little attention to Techlash issues.

60% believe Internet platforms do more to divide society, than to unite society (11%). And 47% believe Internet platforms create more problems than they solve, than solve more problems than they create (15%).

Second, core 2020 election dynamics will continue to propel and sustain the Techlash.

An analysis of the 2016 U.S. electorate shows that Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s tech libertarian values were at odds with ~96% of the 2016 American electorate’s reported political values.

Importantly, the dominant Internet platforms aren’t outsiders. Their business as vacuums of inside information make them the insiders’ insider, and the elites’ elite. They are the most powerful political wing of “the establishment,” that populists on both sides of the political spectrum are rejecting.

This all makes the Techlash a strong populist political issue and means both parties believe that the election could hinge on who wins the populist vote.

Importantly, both parties greatly fear that Google and/or Facebook could take sides in the election and non-transparently abuse their dominant social intermediary positions to steer the election’s outcome against them.

Tellingly, every 2020 Presidential candidate, top congressional leader, and State Attorney General are part of the Techlash because dominant Internet platforms command extraordinary unaccountable and non-transparent power. 

As this crisis reminds, Google and Facebook are still allowing rampant Coronavirus misinformation on their platforms, misinformation that can be deadly.

Third, the Techlash is broad, robust, serious, and lasting.  

The DOJ has been investigating  Alphabet-Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft for potential anticompetitive behavior since July. U.S. Attorney General Barr recently said he expects to decide on whether to file a DOJ antitrust case against Alphabet-Google for suppressing competition by early summer.

Last month, the FTC started a new review of Alphabet-Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft’s unreviewed acquisitions over the last decade in search of anticompetitive patterns of behavior.

The FTC continues to investigate whether Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were anticompetitive and has signaled that past acquisitions could be unwound, and Facebook broken up. FTC Chairman Simons recently signaled the FTC’s Facebook decision is near.

The FTC is investigating whether Amazon Marketplace is acting anticompetitively vis a vis the two million seller competitors that it hosts on its platform.

Tellingly, Amazon faces a new class action Sherman monopolization lawsuit for price-fixing, and a new complaint for tying its Marketplace and logistics services to force prices up.

Amazon’s recent Coronavirus Crisis decision to only deliver essential items, unilaterally has competitively disadvantaged multitudes of Amazon seller competitors that heavily depend on Amazon’s dominant Marketplace, logistics, and delivery services to be fair and transparent.

Almost all State Attorneys General are part of antitrust probes into Google and Facebook. In Congress, both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees also are investigating them.

At the same time, dominant Internet platforms are also using this crisis period as an opening to bombard the recently introduced EARN IT Act, a Senate bill that would make their Section 230 intermediary liability protections contingent on earning immunity by following best practices to prevent the exploitation of children.

In short, the Coronavirus Crisis is no cure for the Techlash.

That’s because the Techlash is broad, robust, serious, populist, and lasting, and because this health crisis and governments’ responses to it, are making dominant online platforms even more essential to consumers and society.  


Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor® a responsible Internet consultancy. He is author of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” and currently is working on his second book, “The Irresponsible Internet & How to Fix It.”