From big tech platforms to digital utilities

Written by Alan W. Brown, Professor in Digital Economy at the University of Exeter Business School and Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute

One of the most striking aspects of the current crisis is the not the massive shift of our work and personal lives to online, but the resilience and flexibility of the underlying technical infrastructure to enable this. The move to internet-based services has been underway for many years, and large-scale deployment of that technology infrastructure is nothing new. However, this growth, while spectacular in the long term, has been at a pace and with a predictability that has allowed the engineers behind the scenes to evolve the “internet plumbing” at a rate that has kept up (more or less) with demand. The gradual increase and reliance on fast, always-on digital services has pushed internet technologies to be robust and secure with an admiral tolerance for errors.

But the current unprecedented calamity is quite different. A sudden, huge shift to online activities has driven internet demand in new directions, both in terms of scale and the kinds of patterns of use. Over a few short weeks, the ways in which people are interacting via internet-based services have changed significantly. Obvious examples such as video conferencing are clear, with reported downloads of video conferencing tools in March 2020 said to be in excess of 63 million. However, there are many others from online ordering of goods and services to remote monitoring and tracking.

This has placed a great deal of pressure on the Big Tech firms that host them. Companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Alibaba, Tencent, and Facebook have built huge businesses by delivering pervasive internet-powered platforms that play an increasing role in supporting digital services through their own expanding portfolio of offerings, and as the anchor for partner ecosystems with offerings provided by many others. Sometimes viewed as approaching monopoly status, they have used their position to collect data on all aspects of their business operations and customers to optimize the delivery infrastructures they control. While this was beginning to be questioned in some quarters as “data hoarding“, and by others as the epitome of an emerging “surveillance capitalism“, it is now becoming clear that they are part of a pervasive critical infrastructure powering business resilience and continuity. From this perspective they perhaps are more readily viewed as digital utilities. They provide essential, ubiquitous services that have played a significant role in helping us through this current crisis.

Moving them to this new status has its consequences. For sure, the current circumstances will increase the calls for the Big Tech firms to be governed, regulated, taxed, and financially capped in the same way as other utilities such as electricity or water. But it also may do something more. It may reignite discussions on what the internet is, who owns it, and who decides on how it will evolve.

It is tempting to start the discussions in the world of bits, bytes, and cables to gain an understanding of its physical characteristics. Perhaps like other utilities, while people rely on the internet for essential services, few people actually know how it works. For many people it is still as if a minor miracle occurs whenever they send an email, stream a movie, or facetime a friend. In Andrew Blum’s “Tubes” he provides a fascinating account of how the internet works from the ground up. Literally. Starting with cables and routers that traverse the globe, like Alice in the Looking Glass he follows the white rabbit down the rabbit hole to work out how the text you type on your laptop sitting on the sofa can appear only a few seconds later on your workmate’s iPad halfway around the world.

Of course, lots of very clever technology make the internet work. But, understanding  the internet by tracking its cables is rather like describing education in terms of how books are printed. While fascinating, it misses the key point about its impact. Having traced the tracks of the internet over more than 3 years, Andrew Blum concluded his book, with the key insight from his journey:

What I understood when I arrived home was that the internet was not a physical or a virtual world, but a human world. The internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers but from a certain vantage point there is really only one. You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.

The value in thinking about the Big Tech platforms as digital utilities is that it allows us to remind ourselves that digital transformation is something much more than a digitally-driven technology upgrade. Rather than getting lost in technical bravado, it is useful to remember that for all its overwhelming complexity the internet is fundamentally a pervasive infrastructure for connecting people, things, and places. Somehow, rather paradoxically, that feels like both a rather alarming and somewhat satisfying conclusion. And all the more appropriate as a consequence.

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