By Bryan Toston
Conversations around the role and nature of technology in our lives have heated up in Congress over the summer. And with good reason: sensible privacy protection rules, in particular, are important for business owners as well as consumers. Unfortunately, the focus of lawmakers has not been on enacting a strong federal privacy standard; rather, they have advanced a package of antitrust bills directly aimed at punishing the largest technology companies for, among other things, their growth.
Setting aside the motivation behind this legislation, the effects would be very real for the small business community, and our economy at large. Small business owners risk suffering hugely disproportionate impacts, especially in terms of how the digital tools we rely on are regulated, unless our voices are part of the conversation.
It is impossible to overstate the role that technology has played in the small business community over the past year and a half. Maintaining operations and keeping employees on the payroll during a pandemic would simply not have been possible without the digital tools available to today’s small business owner. The “stack” of back-end and marketing platforms provided by big technology companies – the same companies currently under congressional scrutiny – have given Main Street businesses and budding ventures in their communities a chance to survive.
In working with small businesses across Eastern Washington, I’ve seen the value firsthand. We all use a host of Google’s tools: Analytics, Workspace, Admin Console. And Amazon Web Services is critical for hosting websites and facilitating other small business functionalities. In today’s uncertain marketplace, more than ever, small businesses need to connect and engage with customers online directly. That means employing a purposeful approach to social media, and our online presences more generally. We’ve adapted over recent years, using social media marketing techniques through Facebook, Google, YouTube and others that have allowed for targeted engagement with existing customers, and channels to reach new ones. Facebook’s marketing tools, for example, were the only life jacket keeping some small businesses afloat during the shutdowns, allowing them to keep their customers updated, informed, or just reached in a time when few had the means to reinvent on a local level what the larger tech companies were already providing.
As discussions surrounding regulating the tech industry continue in Congress, I can’t help but see the impacts of certain proposals unfairly affecting our small business community. Major companies willing and able to spend millions of dollars on focus groups have the luxury of generating audience data that they need for their marketing. The integrated digital tools put in jeopardy by looming antitrust proposals have allowed small businesses to have access to that same kind of marketing – a crucial leg up, especially during the tight times of the pandemic.
That’s the biggest thing in digital tools: they allow the little guy to have access to the same kinds of tools and market research that larger companies can afford. If lawmakers are looking to foster competition, they should be encouraging continued access to and provision of digital tools, not limiting them.
Business owners and consumers alike wholly recognize the need for policy conversations around technology, given its critical and expansive role in our lives. But these conversations must include the perspective of local business owners who rely on the tools provided by the very companies who are the primary subject of anti-tech policies and messages coming out of Congress.
As delta variant COVID-19 cases continue to surge, and uncertainty remains ever present in the daily lives of small business owners and communities across the state, we are looking to see a policy approach to technology that lifts up the small business community and facilitates continued access to critical digital services. We have ideas about how to protect everyone’s best interests, including our local economy’s. It’s time to make sure small business owners have a seat at the table.
Bryan Toston is the co-owner of Kraken Creative, a Spokane-based marketing and design firm that serves small businesses across the Northwest, and a board member of the Spokane Hospitality Association.
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