As COVID shrank your world, it made big tech even bigger. Now, things may never be the same again


If the revolution will be televised, the pandemic has been live-streamed.

Millions of Canadians are spending more time online than ever before during this health crisis, as they look for news and information; shop for things needed and not; and scroll the social-media feeds of friends they can’t see in person anymore.

But as your life has become smaller and more mundane, tech behemoths have grown larger and more powerful, fed by every robot vacuum purchased on Amazon and every Google search for COVID-19 case counts in your hometown.

For big technology companies such as Facebook, Apple and Netflix, the past 12 months have been a boon for business — but also a time in which they have arguably been exposed to an unprecedented degree of scrutiny.

The growing strength of these tech giants, and the fresh attention being paid to them, is playing out against a backdrop of simmering debate about what role, if any, Canada and other countries should play in their regulation.

Torstar, the company that owns the Toronto Star, is campaigning for the federal government to adopt measures that would require tech companies such as Google and Facebook to pay for the news content they use.

Jessica Bay, a PhD candidate in communication and culture at York and Ryerson universities, says the months we’ve all spent surrounded by screens, tethered to digital lifelines, have driven home the omnipresence — and power — of technology.

“They’ve become somewhat essential services,” she says. “We needed something to do, so we spent time googling how to make bread and watching YouTube videos on how to do it and spent time on Facebook, yelling at each other.”

Jessica Bay is a PhD candidate in communication and culture at York and Ryerson universities.

For many who had never spent quite this kind of time online before, the constant connection to the internet also highlighted what critics say is a ballooning power imbalance.

“It made them think about the fact that these people are making a whole bunch of money, and I’m living off of CERB cheques,” she said, referring to the federal financial assistance to Canadians affected by COVID-19.

As platforms such as Google and Facebook have grown, countries around the world have debated reining them in — on issues ranging from taxation to ad revenue to privacy.

In the United States, tech companies are facing numerous antitrust lawsuits, while Australia has drafted legislation that would force companies to pay for links to news stories on their site — prompting Google to threaten to shut down its search engine there.

Listen to Kieran Leavitt discuss Google’s fight with Australia

Here in Canada, the federal government has introduced Bill C-10, which would take the Broadcasting Act and apply it to the internet, giving the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission the ability to push back on tech companies that operate here, though the potential consequences aren’t quite clear.

But those questions, of whether these companies have gotten too big, and if so, what to do about it, have only become thornier as the pandemic has spurred new growth in usership.

“A large percentage of the population never relied on digital technology for anything serious, because they were not sure if they were safe enough,” says Harry Sharma, innovation and technology director of the Conference Board of Canada.

“But the minute the pandemic hit, everyone is forced to use the technology and started exploring these platforms.”

That trend is borne out by Statistics Canada. In September, more than four in 10 Canadians said their tech use had gone up, thanks to things such as social media, online messaging and streaming.

Many people were also using that time to shop, with retail e-commerce sales up by three quarters, year over year, by November.

All of that screen time has been a boon for tech companies, the top seven of which added a whopping $3.4 trillion in value last year.

According to CNBC, that growth was fuelled by pandemic-friendly products such as iPhones from Apple; online sales facilitated by Amazon; and team-collaboration software by Microsoft. Of course, thanks to continued digital ad dominance, many people also saw ads powered by Google and Facebook in between their other shopping, browsing and messaging.

Many tech companies also engaged themselves in the pandemic and its official response.

In the spring, Apple and Google put their heads together on contract-tracing technology that used Bluetooth to help governments and health agencies try to control the spread of the virus. Canada’s federal contact tracing app is one of many built on this technology.

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Some sites, meanwhile, became a primary source of information about the virus and response.

Clifton van der Linden

As online socializing and reliance on the internet have increased, so has the amount of news and information people are getting from social media platforms, says Clifton van der Linden, director of McMaster University’s Digital Society Lab.

“So many of the platforms that we’re using to keep in touch with friends and family during the pandemic also integrate news information; so we’re passively consuming more of this content by virtue of more time spent online,” emailed van der Linden, a political science professor who researches the implications of digital technologies for society.

“These sites are also learning about our preferences for news content based on our online behaviours and then targeting us with content that we’re more likely to read. So you can see how this cycle produces an increasing reliance on the internet as a source of news.”

More people getting critical information online has, in turn, opened the floodgates for everything from misinformation to extreme political ideology to cyber security concerns, but Sharma said deciding how to deal with these issues is just part of some natural growing pains.

“From a technological perspective, this is part of the maturation cycle of any technology race as technologies get larger updates and the society starts using them as mainstream tools. Every tech generation has gone through this.”

Part of that conversation has been around whether these tech companies now can — or should — play a gatekeeping role, Bay said.

For example, when Twitter booted now-former U.S. president Donald Trump off its platform, prompting a flood of other companies to do the same, it was applauded for combating misinformation, but the move also raised real questions around the ability of a private company to effectively silence a public figure.

“The conversation switched from a conversation about antitrust and monopolies to a conversation about the public sphere, and moderation, and whether these companies … have too much control over what we say.”

The question is set to be revived soon, and publicly. In addition to the already tabled Bill C-10, the federal government has plans for legislation that would tackle things such as illegal content online and the compensation of news organizations.

Public education about things such as privacy also have a role to play here, according to a report released by the Information and Communications Technology Council last month.

While government-led initiatives, where appropriate, are the backbone of any response to emerging technology, the report says market-led policy can be helpful for introducing competitive norms. Public education and training about “cyber hygiene,” privacy awareness, and other key skills” also play a key role in helping consumers use technologies safely.

“The idea of ‘ethical technology’ or ‘tech for good’ calls for solutions that are inclusive and just, undo inequalities, share positive outcomes, and permit user agency,” the report reads.

While we all hope that we’ll eventually be able to resume our in-person lives, the growing footprint of big tech may be a bell we can’t unring.

Harry Sharma of the Conference Board of Canada

There are positives to this, Sharma pointed out, as long as consumers are able to choose what and how they want to share.

“We as a country have benefited from enabling a safe and secure platform for conversations and for ideas to be shared. I would hate to see that to go away,” he said.

But van der Linden cautioned against the amount of clout held by tech giants.

“When too much power is amassed by a single or group of actors in society, we lose the ability to hold that person or group to account,” he said.

“Moreover, they are now so deeply integrated into our supply chains that disrupting them may very well threaten our well-being. It’s a tenuous position we find ourselves in, and so I think concern is justified given the circumstances.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung





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