Don't fear the 'techlash', but use it wisely

A 'techlash' is brewing as governments, regulators and businesses scrutinise the world's biggest technology companies and hold them to account. But there is a risk that valid questions about the power of the online giants could lead to hostility towards technology itself.

The fears about the tech companies go far wider than the media industry. As Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, Keith Weed, told the US IAB last month, the march of technology without proper checks and balances has become an issue for society as a whole.

Never before have so much power and data been concentrated in the hands of such a small number of very wealthy, private companies. They talk about organising the world’s information and building communities yet they resist regulation in the name of progress and avoid paying tax outside the US.

However, the winds are turning and may even be blowing in the opposite direction to a year ago, as Vittorio Colao, global chief executive of Vodafone, put it at the recent Mobile World Congress. There is a realisation that democracy is at risk when bad actors are able to use global, online platforms to spread hatred, distort news, tamper with elections and defraud businesses.

Marketers and agency chiefs feel more responsibility than most business leaders because they know they have helped to feed the monsters through digital advertising, which has fuelled the growth of Google and Facebook, if not Apple, Amazon and Netflix.

When big advertisers speak out, particularly as a collective, they can exert some pressure on the tech giants but it’s limited – not least because Google and Facebook get a lot of their revenue from millions of small advertisers.

Weed conceded as much by saying Unilever believes engagement, not a boycott, is the best way to encourage tech companies to change.

Select committees in the House of Commons and US Congress have been turning up the heat on the tech giants and, as Lorna Tilbian, London’s top media banker who has just quit after nearly 35 years in the City, points out: "There’s always the regulator and the taxman – you can’t live outside the rules forever."

But some in media don’t see anything that can halt the FAANGs or the FANGs – as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google have been dubbed, depending on your preferred acronym and whether Apple is included.

Rupert Murdoch’s decision to sell his Fox TV and film assets is an admission that he thinks he doesn’t have the scale to win this fight.

The paradox is that the pace of change in technology is in hiatus – albeit perhaps only for a short time. Smartphone sales have peaked, falling year on year in the last quarter of 2017 for the first time since before the iPhone launched more than a decade ago.

At MWC and other technology fairs, the talk has been about forthcoming innovation in areas such as augmented reality, virtual shopping, autonomous vehicles and Blockchain, rather than a breakthrough happening now.

Even in digital advertising, there is talk of a temporary slowdown as advertisers have been spooked by brand safety, effectiveness, fraud and new GDPR rules on data.

It has become fashionable for some media leaders and industry commentators to deride digital advertising and rejoice in its woes. The danger is that this morphs into a more general hostility towards new technology, which would be a serious mistake.

The pressure for businesses to transform themselves digitally is relentless and the lesson of the past two decades is that too many in legacy media have been too slow to respond.

We need to turn the "techlash" into a force for change and growth that can rebuild trust in media. 

Gideon Spanier is head of media at Campaign

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