“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog start-ups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons” – this is how the U.S. House Judiciary Committee perceives Big Tech. The age of digital monopoly really is here, so says the committee’s report. In fact, as a BBC count has pointed out, the word ‘monopoly’ has been used close to 120 times in the text. But, this isn’t just about smaller businesses turning outcast – we are getting our digital identities condensed to fit algorithms over which, whether we acknowledge it or not, somebody else has greater control. If we sit down to think of it for a prolonged period, it might just drive you down a spiralling abyss of concerns.
The panel has also laid down three significant recommendations for tackling the dominance of the big tech companies – one, prohibition from acting synonymous with business; two, presumptive prohibition that prevents mergers and acquisitions; three, and perhaps the most startling, ‘structural separations’ which essentially requires the companies to break into smaller entities to cut down on influence. Couple the panel’s observations with The Social Dilemma and what you have is a rather alarming overview of digital platforms, beyond the naivety of exchanges and interactions. This is an intricately spread out network of business we’re talking about – it’s high-end capitalism in the making.
There’s often a clichéd topic that gets you by no surprise in generic debates – ‘is social media a boon or a bane?’ Answers are likely going to be balanced, with a large portion of the cons centring around the addictive elements of networking. However, times have progressed and we know a little more than just this to say ‘proceed with caution’ – after all, we did see a fiasco in the name of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica leaks roll out not too long ago. But, would it be overstepping if someone said that social networking thrives on privacy breaches? Maybe not. As Karl Hodge states in a very interesting take on Zuckerberg’s testimony in 2018, tech giants like Facebook make profits by ‘farming your data’. There never is free service. This is a rule of marketing that is oft-repeated to consumers – what you get for free needs to be heavily weighed for all of its aspects before you can grin and accept it. Hodge also quotes Douglas Rushkoff to say that we are Facebook’s ‘product’ and not consumers. The same applies to all other tech giants such as Amazon, Google, and Apple. It almost always feels like there’s an eavesdropper somewhere around who projects our inner thoughts onto the ads that appear on digital devices.
How do we then put a hold on how our data is used? There isn’t any far-spreading solution to this except for those options that these networks provide us with where we can restrict access to some extent. But, even then every link, every bit of information that we read, is getting analysed by the digital matrix. Unless there are regulations in place, courtesy of legislative action, you cannot expect to regain agency or dictate where your data enters and gets utilized. Europe is certainly on the path to creating a model in this respect with new laws being drafted at the moment. As Margrethe Vestager noted, “This is a new phase” – which is why it’s time administrations around the globe looked into regulations, but not as iron-fisted crackers on dissent or opinion. That’s where things turn tricky every time; regulation clearly gets lost in translation and becomes a vehicle for crackdown. Clearly, that’s not where we should be headed. Data regulation must not become a distorted canvas for partisan politics to play out.
Data can of course be used for good – it can help consumers by giving them what they actually want, making their digital experience all the more fruitful. But they should be given the freedom to withdraw consent and also steer the data away from any particular path that it’s being taken through. Agency is ultimately what matters.
I’ll stop with a remark that always features in what I called the ‘generic’ debate on social media — these networks help us connect with each other. We don't have to overlook the good, however complex the rest of the picture may be.