A former Google Australia exec says consumers have 'sleepwalked' into the arms of big tech. But avoiding them is not so simple.

DAMIEN MEYER, AFP, Getty ImagesJust say ‘no’ to tech monopolies, a former Google Australia exec has warned.
  • As pressure on big tech builds, governments are considering drastic measures to curtail the power of companies like Google and Facebook. Just last month Facebook was fined $US5 billion while US presidential hopefuls along with a Facebook co-founder are calling for tech behemoths to be forcibly broken up.
  • Former Google Australia executive Colin Barnard, however, has told Business Insider Australia that if individuals are concerned by the power big tech companies wield, they should seek out their competitors. A culture of consumer “sleepwalking”, he believes, has been the catalyst for Facebook, Google and Apple amassing dangerous power when there are sometimes better alternatives.
  • But avoiding the big tech platforms is easier said than done, with these companies having kept enormous numbers of users for various reasons — from forming large ecosystems, buying out competitive threats and offering services that other companies can’t.

Big tech companies are under intense scrutiny at the moment, but is it our fault that they’re so powerful?

Colin Barnard, a former Google Australia executive of 12 years, believes Australians are “sleepwalking” as they largely all flock to the same tech platforms, without thinking about their decisions.

“There’s no doubt that the likes of Google and Facebook are reaping the benefits of their monopoly power but what we tend to ignore is the role we as consumers play in all this. When it comes to Big Tech, society is guilty of a ‘default complex’, accepting the status quo,” Barnard told Business Insider Australia.

Those monopolies — which afford the likes of Google and Facebook enormous control — are now under fire like never before.

Just a few weeks ago, the Australian competition watchdog the ACCC publicly stated that companies could either get their act together or pack up and leave the country altogether.

“Facebook and Google are clearly subject to our laws. They either comply or do not do business in Australia,” chair Rod Sims said.

Barbard’s comments came hot on the heels of the ACCC’s “world-first” investigation into how Australia could curtail the great power and influence that the likes of Google and Facebook enjoy.

“Make no mistake, these companies are among the most powerful and valuable in the world. They need to be held to account and their activities need to be more transparent,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said when he released the final report from the government inquiry into digital platforms.

Despite concerns, millions of Australians still use the services of big tech companies every day

However, what politicians and regulators aren’t talking about is the reason why these platforms have become so powerful — namely that billions of people around the world choose to use their services every day on an opt-in basis.

Given the number of scandals they appear embroiled in, why don’t users just go elsewhere?

As the popularity of platforms like Google and Facebook exploded, they became synonymous with search engines and social media.

But the fact is that often these companies often aren’t even the best in their field, according to Barnard who cites the example of the iPhone to illustrate his point.

Colin Barnard was a Google Australia executive for 12 years. (Image supplied)

“We all know that many independent reviews cite phones that are ‘better’ but consumers are either choosing not to listen or research into other options. This is when consumers find themselves sleepwalking into an environment — in this case Apple’s App Store — and becoming locked into using default apps and features that are convenient but in many, many cases not the best in the market,” Barnard said, now the Australian commercial director of advertising technology company Criteo.

The same goes for Google and Facebook.

“We give into big tech ecosystems as they make our lives easier by connecting into every facet of our day-to-day activities – work, play and even while we rest. But the downside is that we’re becoming too lazy to take the time to consider other options which is not only hurting us in the long run but society as a whole. The result is that we feel locked into a particular choice and that, had we thought about, we may have acted differently,” Barnard said.

Governments are still figuring out what they can do to combat companies like Facebook and Google

Those choices have now put governments in Australia and abroad in a difficult position as they now try to reign in unwieldy tech companies.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes this year went public with his calls to break Facebook up into three smaller, more manageable entities. US presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has unveiled her own plans to break up Google and Amazon as well.

Mark Zuckerberg has rejected those calls, claiming it will make it even more difficult to solve privacy problems and crackdown on the proliferation of fake news.

But while the responsibility to get big tech in line appears to have fallen to governments, there’s a more subtle way for individuals to erode their power.

Barnard suggests they can break up the tech monopolies by simply going elsewhere. But while there’s no shortage of alternative search engines and smartphones, those ecosystems keep individuals where they are.

Take Google for example, which manages all aspects of your online life. Gmail takes care your email, Drive your cloud storage, Play is where you get apps from and YouTube — bought by Google in 2006 — is where you stream videos.

Google refutes the idea that ecosystems are bad for users

While Google Australia declined to comment directly, it did refer Business Insider Australia to an online blog written by managing director Melanie Silva in response to the Digital Platforms Inquiry.

In it, Silva said the ecosystem isn’t necessarily a bad thing either for users.

“Tools like Google Search and YouTube help Australian students answer more than 25 million questions while doing their homework each night and Google Maps helps Australians save, on average, 29 hours per year navigating our cities,” she wrote.

She added that while individuals are rightfully concerned about what companies do with their data, the collection of it has its benefits as well.

“Whether it’s delivering search results in the correct language or recommending the quickest route home, data can make Google products more helpful to you. We take the responsibility of protecting user data and privacy seriously, and are continuously working to improve features to give users even more control,” Silva wrote.

The customer still ultimately decides what they use

In the same way, while the iPhone might not be the best phone on the market, there are reasons millions of people buy it and other Apple products each year.

“Apple has been incredibly clever in the way it has designed its ecosystem. Its products are beautiful to look at, simple to use and wholly reliant on one another for maximum usability and convenience. It’s just too hard to leave,” Gizmodo Australia editor Tegan Jones said.

Even when competitors like Samsung, Google and Huawei might have better specs for lower prices, Jones said Apple’s customers were happy to keep buying due to familiarity and complacency.

“It helps that Apple’s marketing is brilliant, and has been for years. While millions of people are locked into the ecosystem, they’re quite happy to be there,” she said.

Consider too that when it comes to social networks like Facebook, people automatically gravitate to the ones their friends use. That’s not to mention that Facebook, like other tech companies, has been able to cannibalise the competition, taking ownership of otherwise competing platforms Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp — the same way that Google acquires smaller players.

READ MORE: US regulators are talking to founders of companies Facebook acquired as part of the government’s new antitrust probe

That has helped consolidate and protect the source of tech’s power — its user base.

Despite the difficulty in changing however, Barnard believes it’s high time Australians were prepared to lead the crowd instead of just following it.

“We are naturally drawn to platforms with the largest number of people connecting as we feel a part of something bigger than we are, yet it’s making us resistant to try new sites without seeking the approval of others. We need to ask ourselves, is this ‘mateship’ culture restricting us from opening up to something different?” he said.

Unless we start making these kinds of conscious decisions, Barnard warns we shouldn’t be surprised if one day we wake up without the freedom to choose, citing the US axing net neutrality — the principle that all internet traffic be treated the same.

“Take the open internet – there was an uproar when America introduced anti-net neutrality measures whereby only the worthy or the elite and wealthy have access to high quality, high-speed information. Aussies are choosing to look away without realising what they are sacrificing,” he said.

“If we’re not careful and don’t face up to our own ‘default complex’, Australia will become no different.”

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