Tom Watson meeting Labour NEC in London

Tom Watson calls on authorities to block tech giants’ ‘bad mergers’

Image credit: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson has criticised the practices of Silicon Valley giants, and urged UK authorities to put a temporary halt to acquisitions by the largest tech companies.

Speaking at an event hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Inclusive Growth, Watson said that tech giants should be more closely regulated in order to protect high-quality work in the UK.

Watson said that the quality of work was declining, with many workers being treated like robots by employers. He referred to the plight of social media content moderators suffering PTSD-like symptoms as a result of reviewing thousands of gory, explicit, violent, and abusive posts every day.

“In the last industrial revolution, coal face and heavy industrial jobs had an awful effect on our health. These [modern] kinds of jobs cause a different but similarly terrible kind of damage,” he said, adding: “The gig economy is breaking minds.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of self-employed workers is rapidly growing (expanding from 3.3 million in 2001 to 4.8 million in 2017). Many people registered as self-employed work in the gig economy for digital companies such as Uber and Deliveroo, where shifts are uncertain, pay fluctuates, and influence on the company is minimal.

“We saw that technology was creating huge disruption in the world of work and was set to do more. It was destroying some jobs, hollowing out others against the broader economic backdrop of real wages falling, inequality rising, productivity and growth slowing, and it was changing the ways of working,” said Watson. “It was shifting the balance of power and control in profound ways.”

“I think the question at the heart of this debate is how do we protect and promote autonomy in the age of automation.”

Watson backed the Institute for the Future of Work’s ‘Good Work Charter’, which proposes that work should be fair, equal, dignified, autonomous, participatory, supportive of wellbeing, and should provide opportunities to learn. He acknowledged that “for a lot of people, it’s a long way off from where we are today”, and proposed that the behaviour of very large tech companies was exacerbating the problem of poor quality work in which employees felt that they lacked autonomy.

“The market is dominated by a small number of data monopolies,” Watson said. “[They] turn our activities, interests, and opinions into data which they then monetise to create billions through targeted advertising then they use their relentless algorithms to monetise and control that behaviour.”

“In an information age where knowledge is power, Silicon Valley’s tech giants know every detail about our entire lives: where we go, who we speak to, our opinions, our hopes, our disappointments. They even know to a terrifying degree of accuracy where people will be in the future. Meanwhile, many of us have no idea what data these companies hold, who has access to it, or even what it is used for. Their total market dominance makes them think they are not only unaccountable to consumers and government but they are untouchable,” he continued.

Watson named and shamed the world's largest tech companies for behaviour which indicates disinterest in being held accountable. He criticised Google AI subsidiary DeepMind for scrapping its ethics panel in the UK, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for showing “disdain for our democratic oversight” by refusing to appear before the Parliamentary Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport in order to answer questions about the harvesting of data by third-party developers like Cambridge Analytica for shady political purposes.

He called for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to follow their US counterpart’s example and investigate anticompetitive practices by these tech giants, particularly with regard to effect on jobs. He cited a report which estimated that the UK was likely to lose 23,000 shops and 175,000 high-skilled jobs on the high street within the next 12 months due pressure from tech giants like Amazon.

Earlier this month, Amazon denied that warehouse automation would lead to mass redundancies, stating that the company was a long way from having the technology ready from creating a “lights-out fulfilment network”.

Despite reassurances with regards to technological replacement, optimism about the world of work is low. At the same event, consultancy Opinium presented findings from a survey of 3000 nationally representative UK workers which showed that a fifth had become more pessimistic about their career prospects in the past year. The most optimistic employees tended to work in sectors such as IT and engineering in which risk of automation was low, while the most pessimistic employees were found to be largely from sectors at high risk of automation such as retail and wholesale distribution.

Watson said that the many impacts of technological advances on the quality of work in the UK meant that authorities should only allow tech giants to acquire other companies if the merger was likely to create more good jobs. Authorities could use the definition of ‘good work’ as laid out in the Good Work Charter to judge whether this was the case, he suggested.

“We need digital market competition, not acquisition,” Watson continued. “That’s why today I wrote to the CMA calling for an urgent review of the digital market. Bad mergers should be broken up and the CMA should use their powers to impose interim measures to block future mergers by tech giants [while the review is ongoing].”

Across the Atlantic, there are increasing calls to break up the very largest tech companies. Several Democratic hopefuls seeking the official nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 have backed Senator Elizabeth Warren’s detailed proposals for demergers, while Facebook co-founder and former president Chris Hughes used an op-ed in the New York Times to back calls for a break-up of the social media giant.

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