The giants of the web are exerting a growing influence on the global economy. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, often referred to by the acronym Gafa, should they be hailed as catalysts of innovation, or should we fear these sprawling behemoths who know more and more about us? Pierre-Yves Gosset, director of the Framasoft free software promotion association and Narendra Jussien, director of IMT Mines Albi and holder of a Google Research Award, share their point of view.
Industry & Technologies: The Gafa, presented as vectors of democracy during the Arab Spring, have just been accused by the European Commissioner for Competition of “killing democracy”. What do you think ?
Narendra Jussien : The wind has turned. From now on, these companies are often seen as threats. The concentration of their activities poses indeed question – but it is the case for any multinational. Other issues, such as data protection, are more specific. Like any tool, those that they develop open the field of the possible, but are intrinsically neither good nor bad.
Pierre-Yves Gosset : The democratic risk seems to me real. Interferences were also pointed during the US presidential debate. The Framasoft association raises awareness among the general public about the triple takeover of the digital giants. It is both technical, economic – Google’s current market capitalization is seven times Morocco’s GDP for the year 2016! – and cultural, with a profound change in our habits. How to make sure that it is the general interest that is served in a world dominated by these societies, present in all areas of life?
I & T: Can we still believe in alternatives?
P.-Y. G . That’s the problem. Since these companies are very innovative and efficient, we tend to use them for everything … and even to delegate powers to them that should only be public services. Their global success and their means allow them to collect a mass of information inaccessible to the new actors of a market. This is why we are advocating for the opening of anonymized databases, in order to limit our dependence, which is toxic.
NJ The digital changes anyway the deal, refuse the transition will not work. Better to understand it and take it as an opportunity. From the point of view of the available solutions, the existence of a minimum of diversity, represented for example by the search engine Qwant, is interesting … but rather limited compared to the stakes.
P.-YG I fully agree on the importance of understanding the tools. The question is not so much to use them or not, but to do so knowingly, even if it means changing one’s habits.
NJ That’s what we try to convey to our students. Our role is also to open their mind, raising awareness, whatever the sector, to the existence of different types of companies, beyond the major players that everyone knows.
Are the digital giants a chance or a threat to innovation?
NJ Their dynamism can represent an opportunity, in a logic of well-understood interest. When I was doing artificial intelligence research about a decade ago, my lab was spotted and funded by Google. This had given us recognition and also great freedom, as they had not laid down any conditions on the direction of our research.
P.-YG These companies do innovation, and even extraordinary things thanks to their colossal means that allow them to “target the moon”. However, they can also kill her. Their strength allows them to buy or finance any innovative company. It seems to me problematic that private actors decide which research should be funded or not.