U.S. tech kings bobble their response to public backlash

Commentary: Google parent Alphabet, Apple, Facebook and Amazon haven’t quite figured out how to deal with the hand-wringing over their power coming from politicians, regulators, academics and corporate enemies.

What do Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, White House strategist Steve Bannon and the successor to the Ma Bell telephone monopoly have in common? They all think America’s technology titans are too big and powerful.

The growing might of Google parent Alphabet, Apple, Facebook and Amazon has been a recurring theme, particularly since last year when the four U.S. tech kings became some of the most valuable public companies in the world. The companies themselves haven’t quite figured out how to deal with the hand-wringing over their power coming from politicians, regulators, academics and corporate enemies.

This backlash is one of the most serious business risks for America’s tech superpowers, and they need to develop a coherent message fast.

I was surprised last week when Google executives seemed awkward addressing analysts’ questions about regulatory investigations and data-privacy policies. At one point, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sounded as if he would have preferred to be trapped in Antarctic ice rather than tackle a query that touched on the company’s move to combine data from several of its web services to improve ad targeting.

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Mind you, the company first announced in 2012 that it was starting to share user information among Google services such as search and YouTube, and privacy watchdogs have howled about all subsequent policy changes that further mingle its troves of user data. When Pichai was asked whether Google’s ads are more effective because of this data sharing, he vaguely talked about respecting users’ privacy and being “thoughtful.”

It’s also possible European antitrust czars might eventually force Google to change its popular shopping ads in search results or how it distributes apps on Android phones. These changes could hurt Google financially, but Pichai and Alphabet Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat either deflected questions on this or said Google would be fine if it had to stop bundling many of its apps on Android smartphones. (If that’s true, then why does it strike deals to ensure a number of its apps are preinstalled on Android smartphones?)

I don’t want to overplay a few…

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