Google, Apple and Facebook are curtailing freedoms that allowed them to bloom

by The Listener / 15 September, 2016
Photo/Getty Images

The multinationals appear to have electively forgotten that they were given their shot at lucrative democratised communication for free. 

They’ve undeniably changed our world for the better, but it’s now beyond debate that the very companies to have made the most of the extraordinary freedom offered by the world wide web since its inception in 1989 are now in the process of curtailing that freedom for others.

Exhibit A: Facebook ordains that Norway’s Prime Minister and Aftenposten newspaper cannot, without pixilation, reproduce on Facebook the landmark Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a naked Vietnamese child fleeing in terror after being burnt during a napalm attack. The inanity of the automatic ruling from the site that any picture of a naked child is offensive was evident to everyone but those running the company, who took several days to review and correct the ruling.

With billions of users, Facebook has become a compulsory location for media and many other enterprises. But as Aftenposten asked, need we submit to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg as editor-in-chief of the entire world? The practical effect of Facebook’s autocratic policies is that if you want to be on it – increasingly essential in today’s business world – it owns your content and can nix your freedom of expression without right of appeal. This is not the spirit in which the internet, which begat Facebook, was founded.

Exhibit B: French police have raided Google’s Paris headquarters as part of an investigation into whether the alpha search engine is evading tax by rerouting declarations of its business in Ireland. Previous Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he was proud of how little tax the company paid. “That’s capitalism,” he said. This is not the spirit in which the internet, which begat Google, was founded.

Exhibit C: Apple launches its new iPhone this week, minus the 3.5mm headphone jack – despite all the wireless technology available to consumers being inferior, more expensive and less convenient than an old-fashioned headphone. When a company does something that suits itself but not its customers, it’s time to be sceptical. What has quickly become clear is that Apple is using its market dominance to try to force people to use its own brand of wireless pairing system. This follows a controversial ruling by the European Union that Apple must pay Ireland €13 billion in nine years’ back taxes – even against Ireland’s will. Although EU countries are divided about the propriety of this ruling, the overarching feature is that globally dominant tech brands seem not to behave as good corporate citizens. In fact, Apple paid an effective corporation tax rate of just 0.005% on its European profits in 2014. Again, hardly in the spirit of the inventors of the internet.

The licit minimisation of one’s tax bill is a natural impulse hardly confined to multinationals, which are as entitled to rearrange their affairs as anyone else. But what makes the brazenness with which Google, Apple and their ilk dodge tax so dispiriting is that these are the companies that based their brands squarely on the ethos of democratisation of communications. Now they’re pulling up the ladder as fast as they can to stop other innovators following them. They capitalise on their market dominance to avoid tax and hinder any further budding competition.

They appear to electively forget that they were given their shot at lucrative democratised communication for free. Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the other inventors of the world wide web envisaged the platform would be open, allowing unlimited and “permissionless innovation”, one on top of another. That such innovation would be monetised was inevitable. That it should be monetised in the predatory manner these companies now practise was never envisaged. Facebook, for one, will not allow anyone to use its space as a platform for other innovation – unless it happens to benefit Facebook. As Cambridge professor and Guardian writer John Naughton recently wrote, Facebook is the mirror opposite of what the web’s inventors intended. Indeed Naughton rails against what he sees as the “hypocrisy” of Zuckerberg’s celebration of an “open and connected” online world.

Berners-Lee is himself concerned at the rapacity, acquisitiveness and controlling dominance of the web’s monolith companies. He is reportedly working with like-minded scientists to counter it. Now that’s the spirit of the internet.

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