The titans of the web are rebels, playing by their own rules. That is to be applauded at times, but we should also be thinking about the wider, long-term implications for society and fair competition.
I read a great Tumblr post today. No idea who wrote it, but it’s an expression of extreme annoyance with Google, PayPal and other online behemoths that have grown way beyond the “startup” stage but that still don’t provide proper, human customer support because it’s hard to scale at low cost.
“It’s easy to make big money when you get to keep all the profits,” the Glass Balcony post points out, before complaining about the impact of these low-outlay ways on real people:
“Relying on automated support systems is no longer adequate. As the amount of online fraud grows over the years, automated systems are becoming less efficient. There is no accurate measure for that, however it’s anecdotally known that it’s more common nowadays for Google to shut down perfectly well-standing and long-standing AdSense accounts for invalid activity without providing the actual reasons for shutdown. Ditto for PayPal withholding the funds of customers.”
We all marvel at how quickly these companies grow and at their bounteous financials, but we don’t often enough sit back and consider why it is these companies can perform so well.
A huge part of that is down to enabling technologies, from the web itself to cloud computing and, yes, natural language processing and other technologies that will make automated customer service more useful and reliable. But that’s only part of the picture.
At this stage in the game, these companies are playing by different rules to everyone else. In the context of the post I mentioned above, customers are not customers: instead, they are users. If the exchange of money isn’t central to the relationship, as it is with an e-commerce operation such as Amazon, then customer support becomes an afterthought – after all, most of the users aren’t paying with anything more than their personal data anyway, so what should they expect?
But that’s only one facet. Pull back, and this iconoclasm becomes even more concerning.
I’m not suggesting that Amazon, Google and Facebook are breaking any laws, but they certainly don’t pay much tax either, relative to their revenues. In Europe, this is becoming a big issue, which is unsurprising given our current age of austerity.