Today, a handful of world-straddling corporations control all our information infrastructure with huge data vaults on billions of us, with even less accountability or oversight than that faced by the National Security Agency. Together, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, and Facebook are worth over $5 trillion dollars – equivalent to one quarter of total US GDP.
The concentrated power of Big Tech over the digital world is not just an economic question, but one of human rights.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact and influence of these companies. These aren’t just companies anymore; they’re gatekeepers to the online world, shaping Americans’ experience of the internet, setting the rules of digital interaction – and influencing the lives – of almost everyone in the United States.
The pandemic has only accelerated this process, further embedding these companies into our daily lives.
Data Harvesting and Profiling
Amazon currently controls 45 percent of all e-commerce in the United States (as measured by gross market value), and almost one in every three Americans has an Amazon Prime account. Approximately 45 percent of all smartphone users in the country are Apple iPhone users, while globally, smartphones overwhelmingly operate on Google’s Android. Meanwhile, 223 million Americans use Facebook, making it the United States’ dominant social media company. A staggering 259 million Americans use Google products, with Google accounting for 88 percent of US search engine use.
There is currently no real pathway through that world that doesn’t involve passing through an invisible and pervasive web of data harvesting and profiling, the lifeblood of the targeted advertising model underpinning the internet.
Facebook and Google pioneered this surveillance-based business model and established a duopoly over digital advertising that only Amazon is now challenging. By doing so, these surveillance giants have eroded the very essence of our right to privacy.
Not only that, but Facebook and Google’s platforms also use our data against us, shaping our information environment in whatever way drives the most profit. Repeatedly this results in the platforms’ algorithms amplifying disinformation and divisive content, fueling racism, and even influencing our own beliefs and opinions.
This month alone, Facebook has grappled with an unprecedented advertising boycott over its failure to Stop Hate For Profit amidst the Black Lives Matter movement. It chose to simply shrug off the concerns of over 1000 major advertisers, and its stock price is already bouncing back.
Protect Our Privacy
For far too long, we have let these companies set the terms of participation. The crux of their argument is that we submit ourselves voluntarily to this mass harvesting of our data in exchange for the products and services they provide. They argue: how can it be a violation of our privacy when we ourselves consent?
This where they are wrong. People are effectively powerless to leave these platforms and services when their lives are so extensively entwined with them.
Meanwhile, the companies’ market dominance means there are no genuine alternatives. This is a trap: either submit to their pervasive tracking or forego the benefits of a modern world. This can never be a legitimate choice.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai will no doubt offer words of reassurance and highlight their ethical frameworks, but these are merely tools to deflect criticism. Facebook even wants to help write federal privacy laws, a fox offering to guard the henhouse.
The public is pushing back against oil companies setting our environmental standards, and the same must be done with Big Tech to protect our privacy.
COVID-19 and Health Data
This is especially pressing now, as these companies focus more of their attention on the health sector, aggregating our most personal health information. COVID-19 presents an unprecedented opportunity for tech companies to get their hands on our intimate health data. And there’s no reason to believe that they can be trusted with this sensitive information.
Google followed its acquisition of fitness wearable Fitbit by signing a deal with a healthcare provider that reportedly allows the company access to the health records of millions of people without their knowledge or consent. The deal raises alarm as to how this data will be used.
Google buying Fitbit means Google taking control over data-gathering infrastructure focusing on health, including partnerships with employers+insurers.
— Wolfie Christl (@WolfieChristl) July 22, 2020
Individuals must be able to control who can access their medical records and how those records are used, but it’s becoming ever harder to escape big tech’s gaze over the most intimate details of our lives.
These companies have a responsibility to respect our human rights wherever and however they operate, including the right to privacy. To make sure they fulfill that responsibility, we need effective government regulation to set stricter limits on the kind of data these firms collect, what inferences can be drawn from that data, and how that data is used to target and influence us by third parties, including advertisers.
Governments are required under international human rights law to protect our rights against abuse by companies. Crucially, that also means challenging the dominance of the platforms through regulatory tools including antitrust.
As a first step, companies must be prevented from making access to their services conditional on individuals “consenting” to the collection, processing, or sharing of their personal data for marketing or advertising. We have a right not to be tracked and we need to be able to exercise it.
For too long Big Tech has been held unaccountable. As the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary is set to hold an unprecedented hearing bringing together the CEOs of four of the world’s most powerful tech companies to investigate their dominance of the online economy, our legislators cannot allow Big Tech to continue to abuse its colossal power over our everyday lives unchecked.
It is time to reclaim this public digital space from a powerful and unaccountable few and demand that it is accessible to all, with human rights at its core.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.