Our love-hate relationship with 'Big Tech'

Our love-hate relationship with 'Big Tech'
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Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are drawing a bead on big U.S. tech companies. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJulián Castro defends going on Fox: I'm focused on 'the people out there watching' Julián Castro defends going on Fox: I'm focused on 'the people out there watching' O'Rourke unveils plan to support women, minority-owned businesses MORE (D-Mass.) says they have grown too powerful and calls for breaking them up — a stance that’s rapidly become a new liberal litmus test.

Meanwhile, European regulators have been slapping stiff fines on Facebook, Google and Apple for a variety of alleged misdeeds, ranging from tax avoidance to privacy and copyright violations. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE has stirred the pot by claiming that social media companies’ efforts to purge their platforms of false and hateful content are biased against conservatives. The Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and House Democrats are all gearing up probes into alleged anti-competitive behavior by the tech giants. 

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If political, media and academic elites increasingly take a sinister view of big tech companies, popular attitudes seem more favorable. That’s especially true in the United States, although European publics, not surprisingly, are more ambivalent about the role these quintessentially American digital giants play in their economies.

A national poll by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and Expedition Strategies released on the eve of last year’s midterm elections asked U.S. voters to rank their feelings about various sectors of the economy. High tech topped the list (67-33 percent positive), followed by manufacturing. Ranking lowest in public esteem were oil and drug companies.

Despite the unpopularity of some sectors, voters were not generally anti-business. Strikingly few, for example, expressed concern about corporate monopolies. Even among Democrats, only 5 percent named monopolies as among the three top issues Congress should tackle.

A solid majority (55 percent) of voters opposed breaking up big tech firms. And 67 percent said they would prefer a candidate who says “we need to be careful about breaking up large American companies like Amazon and google that are innovative and successful” to a candidate who promises to “take on” these companies.

To be sure, 60 percent of voters professed concern about tech companies’ handling of privacy and data protection. But large majorities see these companies as “mainly a positive force in society,” “a sign that the American economy is working” and a “key advantage in our competition with China.” Just a third agreed that big tech firms are “too powerful.”

These findings ought to give pause to Democratic candidates who may be tempted to join Sen. Warren’s crusade to dismantle America’s most innovative companies. In Europe, however, the political risks of villainizing U.S. tech companies are more difficult to calculate.

Last month, PPI unveiled a wide-ranging survey of political attitudes in six European countries: (Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Sweden).

Asked which economic sectors play the most “positive role” in their lives, these voters picked health care first, followed by “high tech companies like Google or Amazon.” Financial services and airlines finished last. 

Yet the same voters also ranked high tech companies second (after financial services) in playing the most negative role. Such ambivalence crops up again and again in our survey. 

In fact, Europeans seem almost evenly divided about big tech companies. Fifty-three percent said tech companies are “too big and powerful and are now mainly a negative force in our society, misusing consumer data and making inequality worse.”

Conversely, 47 percent said they are “mainly a positive force in our society, enhancing our lives with technologies like smart phones, social networking and online commerce.” 

By exactly the same narrow margin, more voters want Europe to “crack down on US tech and other companies that have too much market power and don’t pay enough taxes” than favor a more collaborative approach in which Europe and America “harmonize their tech policies and set standards for privacy and competition for the rest of the world.”

On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of voters said big tech companies like Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook “are reducing costs for consumers and providing more choices.”

More respondents view online companies as “welcome developments that have improved my life” (56 percent) than worry that the internet and social media “disrupt traditional industries and violate my privacy.” 

What to make of these ambiguous findings? Voters in Europe (and even more so in the United States) think that the products and services tech platforms provide have enhanced their lives.

But Europeans worry that their tech companies can’t compete with America’s digital leviathans, and they want the EU to subject them to strong oversight and regulation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation regime adopted last year that imposes strict privacy and data protection rules on all companies. 

Our poll also offers some fascinating insights into how voters’ political preferences correlate to their views on big tech firms.

In general, voters who lean toward nationalist and far-left parties were the most negative, while liberals (in Europe, the label connotes support for free markets) and mainstream conservatives tended to be most positive.

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Floating somewhere between these negative and positive poles are what you might call Europe’s “swing vote” on U.S. tech platforms — voters who lean toward center-left and Green parties.

Social Democratic parties in particular have been losing public support across much of Europe to populist and nationalist forces. (They also fared badly in the recent elections for the EU parliament).

A big reason, our poll suggests, is that they no longer speak clearly to European voters’ aspirations for higher wages and living standards, lower taxes and greater economic equality.

Echoing the debate here among Democrats, some urge Europe’s Social Democratic parties to move left and steal populists’ thunder by attacking U.S. tech companies as data monetizing, tax-dodging monopolists who use their market power to stunt the growth of Europe’s digital economy.

Yet it’s hard to see how taking a reflexively anti-business, anti-growth line would help the center-left persuade middle-class workers that they can reinvigorate Europe’s sluggish economy. 

An alternative course would be to champion Europe’s small and medium-sized businesses, which rely on the powerful digital platforms big tech firms provide to grow and compete globally.

Rather than succumbing to the temptation of digital protectionism, Europe should join forces with the United States to make the transatlantic zone, not China, the world’s epicenter center for high-tech innovation and chief rule-maker for digital competition.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute.