Jan 11, 2019

1 tech thing: How the "big tech" colossus is splitting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For several years it has made sense, in some quarters, to lump together the tech giants — chiefly Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, sometimes also including Netflix or Microsoft. But talking about "big tech" is beginning to offer diminishing returns.

The big picture: Industry insiders have always known that differences among these companies are as pronounced as their shared traits. The rest of the world is catching on.

Investors fell in love with a basket of stocks they called FAANG (for Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) and rode those investments up a tall curve for years.

  • But last year's volatile market put an end to the group's collective ascent.

Policymakers and regulators found it convenient to paint a single big target on "the big tech platforms" as the spate of privacy- and election-related controversies since 2016 raised calls for government action.

Many of these companies banded together in 2012 for lobbying purposes as the Internet Association, and they have long shared a set of common regulatory interests in managing their platforms and services with little government oversight.

  • Other major tech companies, such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Intel and Cisco, have driven lobbying priorities at another D.C. trade group, the Information Technology Industry Council.
  • But as privacy regulation of some kind looks more inevitable, their interests are more likely to diverge.
  • And other social media brands like Twitter and Snapchat aren't interested in being lumped into the "big tech" nomenclature.

Here's how the companies are beginning to go their separate ways: Apple greeted Las Vegas's CES multitudes with a billboard that read, "What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone."

  • The message — "We won't exploit your data like our competitors" — highlighted the fault line between those companies that depend on advertising businesses, like Google and Facebook, and those that sell products, like Apple. (Amazon falls into both camps.)

Facebook is a marketing juggernaut that has become the singular object of Washington's and users’ scorn, pressures that caused it to fall out with Google in a fight over an anti-trafficking bill last year.

  • Recently Facebook has indicated that it views new U.S. privacy rules as inevitable and welcomes the regulation, though it hopes to avoid a law as stringent as the EU's GDPR.

Google, an information provider attached to a vast advertising mill, has avoided the brunt of the scrutiny in Washington but faces major fines and continuing investigations overseas.

  • Facing employee unrest over the company's on-again, off-again collaboration with the Defense Department on an AI project, Google has distanced itself from Pentagon work. That separates it from competitors (like Amazon and Microsoft) who have not shown the same reluctance.
  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai told Axios in an interview last month it might consider changing default privacy settings, which would also be a departure from competitors.

Amazon, the pre-eminent online commerce provider with a growing chunk of the back-end internet business with Amazon Web Services, has problems at the grassroots, as it fights with local activists in New York over its plan to move into Long Island City and takes on a wave of newly empowered progressives in Congress critical of its labor policies.

Netflix, the new-model online content company — which recently pulled out of the Internet Association — just wants to become a Hollywood studio.

  • Being considered a tech company, and a tech stock, was great — until it wasn't.

But, but, but: Of course these companies, and others in Silicon Valley, still share many interests in areas like immigration policy, content liability issues, copyright and more, and they will continue to band together when convenient.

Bottom line: As different pressures come to bear on each of these companies, they are likely to end up taking roads that differentiate them from their competitors — and make "big tech" less useful as an idea or a category.

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