Facebook entered into the data-sharing deals – which are a win-win for the big tech firms in general, to the extent that they increase traffic between the various platforms and bring more and more users to them – between 2010 and 2017 to grow its social network as fast as possible. But neither Facebook nor the other companies involved could keep track of all the implications of the arrangements for user privacy. Apple claimed to not even know it was in such a deal with Facebook, a rather stunning admission given the way in which Apple has marketed itself as a protector of user privacy. At Facebook, “some engineers and executives … considered the privacy reviews an impediment to quick innovation and growth”, read a telling line in the Times piece. And grow it has: Facebook took in more than $40bn in revenue in 2017, more than double the $17.9bn it reported for 2015.
Facebook’s prioritisation of growth over governance is egregious but not unique. The tendency to look myopically at share price as the one and only indicator of value is something fostered by Wall Street, but by no means limited to it. The obliviousness of the tech executives who cut these deals reminds me of bank executives who had no understanding of the risks built into their balance sheets until markets started to blow up during the 2008 financial crisis.
Companies tend to prioritise what can be quantified, such as earnings per share and the ratio of the stock price to earnings, and ignore (until it is too late) the harder-to-measure business risks.
It is no accident that most of the wealth in our world is being held by a smaller and smaller number of rich individuals and corporations who use financial wizardry such as tax offshoring and buy-backs to ensure that they keep it out of the hands of national governments. It is what we have been taught to think of as normal, thanks to the ideological triumph of the Chicago School of economic thought, which has, for the past five decades or so, preached, among other things, that the only purpose of corporations should be to maximise profits.
The notion of “shareholder value” is shorthand for this idea. The maximisation of shareholder value is part of the larger process of “financialisation”. It is a process that has risen, in tandem with the Chicago School of thinking, since the 1980s, and has created a situation in which markets have become not a conduit for supporting the real economy, as Adam Smith would have said they should be, but rather, the tail that wags the dog.
“Consumer welfare,” rather than citizen welfare, is our primary concern. We assume that rising share prices signify something good for the economy as a whole, as opposed to merely increasing wealth for those who own them. In this process, we have moved from being a market economy to being what Harvard law professor Michael Sandel would call a “market society”, obsessed with profit maximisation in every aspect of our lives. Our access to the basics – healthcare, education, justice – is determined by wealth. Our experiences of ourselves and those around us are thought of in transactional terms, something that is reflected in the language of the day (we “maximise” time and “monetise” relationships).
Now, with the rise of the surveillance capitalism practised by big tech, we ourselves are maximised for profit. Remember that our personal data is, for these companies and the others that harvest it, the main business input. As Larry Page himself once said when asked “What is Google?”: “If we did have a category, it would be personal information … the places you’ve seen. Communications … Sensors are really cheap … Storage is cheap. Cameras are cheap. People will generate enormous amounts of data … Everything you’ve ever heard or seen or experienced will become searchable. Your whole life will be searchable.”
Think about that. You are the raw material used to make the product that sells you to advertisers.
Financial markets have facilitated the shift toward this invasive, short-term, selfish capitalism, which has run in tandem with both globalisation and technological advancement, creating a loop in which we are constantly competing with greater numbers of people, in shorter amounts of time, for more and more consumer goods that may be cheaper thanks in part to the deflationary effects of both outsourcing and tech-based disruption, but that cannot compensate for our stagnant incomes and stressed-out lives.
But you could argue that, in a deeper way, Silicon Valley – not the old Valley that was full of garage startups and true innovators, but the financially driven Silicon Valley of today – represents the apex of the shift toward financialisation. Today the large tech companies are run by a generation of business leaders who came of age and started their firms at a time when government was viewed as the enemy, and profit maximisation was universally seen as the best way to advance the economy, and indeed society. Regulation or limits on corporate behaviour have been viewed as tyrannical or even authoritarian. “Self-regulation” has become the norm. “Consumers” have replaced citizens. All of it is reflected in the Valley’s “move fast and break things” mentality, which the tech titans view as a fait accompli. As Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen wrote in an afterword to the paperback edition of their book: “Bemoaning the inevitable increase in the size and reach of the technology sector distracts us from the real question … Many of the changes that we discuss are inevitable. They’re coming.”
Perhaps. But the idea that this should preclude any discussion of the effects of the technology sector on the public at large is simply arrogant. There is a huge cost to this line of thinking. Consider the $1tn in wealth that has been parked offshore by the US’s largest, most IP-rich firms. A trillion is no small sum: that is an 18th of the US’s annual GDP, much of which was garnered from products and services made possible by core government-funded research and innovators. Yet US citizens have not got their fair share of that investment because of tax offshoring. It is worth noting that while the US corporate tax rate was recently lowered from 35% to 21%, most big companies have for years paid only about 20% of their income, thanks to various loopholes. The tech industry pays even less – roughly 11-15% – for this same reason: data and IP can be offshored while a factory or grocery store cannot. This points to yet another neoliberal myth – the idea that if we simply cut US tax rates, then these “American” companies will bring all their money home and invest it in job-creating goods and services in the US. But the nation’s biggest and richest companies have been at the forefront of globalisation since the 1980s. Despite small decreases in overseas revenues for the past couple of years, nearly half of all sales from S&P 500 companies come from abroad.
How, then, can such companies be perceived as being “totally committed” to the US, or, indeed, to any particular country? Their commitment, at least the way American capitalism is practised today, is to customers and investors, and when both of them are increasingly global, then it is hard to argue for any sort of special consideration for American workers or communities in the boardroom.
Tech firms are more able than any other type of company to move business abroad, because most of their wealth is not in “fixed assets” but in data, human capital, patents and software, which are not tied to physical locations (such as factories or retail stores) but can move anywhere. And as we have already learned, while those things do represent wealth, they do not create broad-based demand growth in the economy like the investments of a previous era.
“If Apple acquires a licence to a technology for a phone it manufactures in China, it does not create employment in the US, beyond the creator of the licensed technology if they are in the US,” says Daniel Alpert, a financier and a professor at Cornell University studying the effects of this shift in investment. “Apps, Netflix and Amazon movies don’t create jobs the way a new plant would.” Or, as my Financial Times colleague Martin Wolf has put it, “[Apple] is now an investment fund attached to an innovation machine and so a black hole for aggregate demand. The idea that a lower corporate tax rate would raise investment in such businesses is ludicrous.” In short, cash-rich corporations – especially tech firms – have become the financial engineers of our day.
There are the ways in which big tech is driving the mega-trends in global markets, as we have just explored. Then, there are the ways tech companies are playing in those markets that grant them an unfair advantage over consumers. For example, Google, Facebook and, increasingly, Amazon now own the digital advertising market, and can set whatever terms they like for customers. The opacity of their algorithms coupled with their dominance of their respective markets makes it impossible for customers to have an even playing field. This can lead to exploitative pricing and/or behaviours that put our privacy at risk. Consider also the way Uber uses “surge pricing” to set rates based on customers’ willingness to pay. Or the “shadow profiles” that Facebook compiles on users. Or the way in which Google and Mastercard teamed up to track whether online ads led to physical store sales, without letting Mastercard holders know they were being tracked.
Or the way Amazon secured an unusual procurement deal with local governments in the US. It was, as of 2018, allowed to purchase all the office and classroom supplies for 1,500 public agencies, including local governments and schools, around the country, without guaranteeing them fixed prices for the goods. The purchasing would be done through “dynamic pricing” – essentially another form of surge pricing, whereby the prices reflect whatever the market will withstand – with the final charges depending on bids put forward by suppliers on Amazon’s platform. It was a stunning corporate jiu-jitsu, given that the whole point of a bulk-purchasing contract is to guarantee the public sector competitive prices by bundling together demand. For all the hype about Amazon’s discounts, a study conducted by the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance concluded that one California school district would have paid 10-12% more if it had bought from Amazon. And cities that wanted to keep on using existing suppliers that did not do business on the retail giant’s platform would be forced to move that business (and those suppliers) to Amazon because of the way that deal was structured.
It is hard to ignore the parallels in Amazon’s behaviour to the lending practices of some financial groups before the 2008 crash. They, too, used dynamic pricing, in the form of variable rate sub-prime mortgage loans, and they, too, exploited huge information asymmetries in their sale of mortgage-backed securities and complex debt deals to unwary investors, not only to individuals, but also to cities such as Detroit. Amazon, for its part, has vastly more market data than the suppliers and public sector purchasers it plans to link.
As in any transaction, the party that knows the most can make the smartest deal. The bottom line is that both big-platform tech players and large financial institutions sit in the centre of an hourglass of information and commerce, taking a cut of whatever passes through. They are the house, and the house always wins.
As with the banks, systemic regulation may well be the only way to prevent big tech companies from unfairly capitalising on those advantages.
There are questions of whether Amazon or Facebook could leverage their existing positions in e-commerce or social media to unfair advantage in finance, using what they already know about our shopping and buying patterns to push us into buying the products they want us to in ways that are either a) anticompetitive, or b) predatory. There are also questions about whether they might cut and run at the first sign of market trouble, destabilising the credit markets in the process.
“Big-tech lending does not involve human intervention of a long-term relationship with the client,” said Agustín Carstens, the general manager of the Bank for International Settlements. “These loans are strictly transactional, typically short-term credit lines that can be automatically cut if a firm’s condition deteriorates. This means that, in a downturn, there could be a large drop in credit to [small and middle-sized companies] and large social costs.” If you think that sounds a lot like the situation that we were in back in 2008, you would be right.
Treating the industry like any other would undoubtedly require a significant shift in the big-tech business model, one with potential profit and share price implications. The extraordinary valuations of the big tech firms are due in part to the market’s expectations that they will remain lightly regulated, lightly taxed monopoly powers. But that is not guaranteed to be the case in the future. Antitrust and monopoly issues are fast gaining attention in Washington, where the titans of big tech may soon have a reckoning.