Silicon Valley titans such as Google and Facebook have recently come in for more criticism in Europe than ever before. They were the target of a strong warning from billionaire George Soros in Davos on Thursday night.
Billionaire Hungarian-American investor George Soros has issued a severe critique of social media and US tech giants, warning that companies such as Facebook and Google are "inducing people to give up their autonomy."
Speaking on Thursday evening at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Soros — who has an estimated net worth of around €6.4 billion ($8 billion) — made it clear that he felt large Silicon Valley companies were becoming more a force for bad than good.
"They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide," he said in the Swiss ski resort. "Social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people's attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies."
Soros spoke of the risks of such power, pointing to the 2016 US presidential election as an example of how large tech companies, such as Facebook, can influence and inform public opinion through the content it hosts and shares.
However, Soros' strongest warning related to what he sees as the biggest risk: the possibility that undemocratic national governments could marry a need for control with the data-rich resources of the largest tech companies.
"There is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon," Soros said. "There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data-rich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance.
"This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined."
2018: Year of the 'techlash'?
Soros' comments come at a time when US behemoths such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are coming in for more regular criticism in Europe from both regulators and ordinary citizens.
The so-called "techlash" against a small but increasingly dominant and influential group of US companies holding unquantifiable amounts of data about individual people has been in evidence in recent months.
In Germany, the Federal Cartel Office, the country's main antitrust agency, is currently investigating Facebook, having concluded in December that it was abusing its market position.
One possible outcome of that investigation, according to Andreas Mundt, head of the cartel office, is that Facebook could face significant curbs on how it collects and uses third-party data.
"We are looking very closely at the connection between data and market dominance, data and market power, and the possible abuse of data collection," he said.
Last year, the European Commission issued a huge €2.4 billion ($3 billion) fine against Google for its monopolistic behavior, while Amazon and Facebook have also been pursued by the Commission over some of their business practices.
Tax has also been an issue. Both Amazon and Apple have recently been targeted by Brussels for the nature of their European tax arrangements.
A thorn in the side
Soros, 87, is well-known in the United States for his liberal political views. A major charitable donor through his Open Society Foundations philanthropic agency, he regularly gets involved in various political and societal debates.
A vocal critic of US President Donald Trump — who speaks in Davos later on Friday — Soros also targeted the president in his speech, accusing him of trying to run America in a criminal manner.
"In the United States, President Trump would like to establish a mafia state but he can't, because the constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won't allow it," he said.
aos/tr (dpa, AFP)