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Tuesday 30 September 2014

Are tech companies too big for their bytes?

Niall Harbison

Published 27/07/2014 | 02:30

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Niall Harbison

Apple announced profits of $7.7bn in the quarter just gone. They are also sitting on on a cash pile of some $160bn which would be more than enough to get Ireland off the hook financially - and then some.

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Google's execs in Paolo Alto are no longer happy with their own private jets and the hassle of having to use their public airports so they have built their own $100m terminal to park their jets as their own profits skyrocket.

Though Amazon reported $20bn in revenue last quarter they are happy to take yet another small loss as they squeeze more small businesses into the ground around the world.

Facebook also announced sky-rocketing profits and over a billion people using their smartphone app.

Tech companies are growing in power to a point where I've been asking myself of late are they just too powerful and should we look at possibly breaking some of them up for the better of the world in the long term?

All this money has to be used for something. At Google they have acquired numerous robotic companies. They're flying huge balloons to provide cheap wifi in underdeveloped countries. Their self-driving cars are very close to hitting the roads and they've been pretty open about moving into space exploration. Both Facebook and Google have acquired drone companies in the last year and Amazon is actively exploring how they could deliver packages with small drones.

Our homes are about to be monitored through an incoming wave of smart software for the home. Soon everything we do at home or in public will be tracked and stored in databases by these large companies.

While the new tech and the huge cash reserves are a worry, it is the ever increasing amounts of data that these companies already hold that is perhaps the scariest.

Facebook knows everything about you including who your friends are, where you are in the world thanks to your phone and some of your most private conversations and secrets thanks to their acquisition of Whatsapp. They showed recently by manipulating 600,000 people's emotions for a scientific test that they are willing to use that data in surprising ways.

Google knows what most of us have been searching for over the last decade. For the first time in history private companies know more about us than even governments do.

For the most part those private companies are based abroad and, as the USA has shown, nothing is really off limits when it comes to snooping. Rightly or wrongly, we have for the most part trusted governments with our data - but we are now asked to trust companies who are not motivated by what is best for us but instead by their profits.

The simple fact is out own interests simply don't align with those of tech companies - and, as their tax strategies have shown, when it comes to doing what is right their morals are at best in a grey area.

Countries and entities like the European Union have always moved to break up monopolies or on anti-trust issues - but I'd argue that we are entering a whole new world where companies are far more powerful than governments themselves. They'll have more money, more data, much bigger reach to billions of global consumers and know everything about us.

We've seen Facebook and Twitter help revolutions, being a force for good in the world - and for the most part I'd hope that large tech companies have good intentions. But it only takes a couple of bad eggs to taint the whole picture.

What happens in a decade when a company has a trillion dollars in cash, data on billions of users and reach around the world, backed up by tens of thousands of robots and self-driving cars - not to mention controlling all the software in our houses?

Should all that power be in the hands of a couple of executives?

I don't think so.

I'm no expert on how you'd go about breaking up the biggest tech companies in the world as it would be a legal minefield but I think history will show that we probably should have acted around about now.

History has shown that power is an addictive thing to hold and these huge tech companies are growing more powerful every day. We've already seen social unrest in San Fransisco as the wealth of the tech workers there outstrips the means of the local populations to afford housing.

That could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pushback against these tech companies in the future.

Could we one day see a war fought between tech companies and governments or even people on the streets? The notion might seem far fetched but technology is taking us on an incredible journey at the moment and it is worth thinking about at least.

Niall Harbison founded digital media agency Simply Zesty. He runs foodie website Lovindublin and picture agency PicStash

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