Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google holding company Alphabet and Facebook account for a combined market capitalisation of $5.3 trillion (close to R75 trillion).
US Senator Josh Hawley has been banging on this monopolistic drum for years, and recently compiled the case against Big Tech into a new book, The Tyranny of Big Tech.
As if to underscore the problem he identified in the book, the original publisher Simon & Schuster cancelled its publication, citing Hawley’s apparent support of protestors storming the US Capitol in January in support of former US President Donald Trump.
Hawley, a divisive figure in US politics, promptly found another publisher.
The new oligarchs
The American Constitutional framers were suspicious of corporations, given their propensity to morph into monopolies. Theodore Roosevelt, US president from 1901 to 1909, was known as the trust-busting president, but the task was beyond him.
The corporate barons reordered US economic life around the giant corporation, imposing divisions between management and labour, and elevating the professional class to a new type of aristocrat at odds with everyday workers.
How massive is Big Tech’s power?
Nine out of 10 internet searches are done by Google Search, and its browser Chrome holds 68% of the world desktop market. Chrome has 63% of the market for mobile browsing and Google’s Android has 85% of the smartphone market worldwide, while Google Maps has 67% of the smartphone map market in the world.
Amazon controls 40% of all online sales in the US, and more than a third of the US population subscribe to Amazon Prime services. Facebook has 2.8 billion active users, approaching half the world’s population.
With big power…
That’s a lot of power. And what has Big Tech done with this power? They reduced Americans to supplicants in their own country, suggests Hawley.
“Tech robs citizens of personal privacy with relentless surveillance and behavioural manipulation.”
The goal is to keep everyone online as long as possible, drown them with advertisements and influence the way they see the world and, more importantly, how they spend their money. There is some overlap between The Tyranny of Big Tech and The Age of Surveillance Capital by Shoshana Zuboff, as both excite outrage at where this Big Tech behemoth is taking us as a society.
Not admitting wrongdoing
The US Federal Trade Commission began investigating Facebook in 2011 over allegations that it took and then broadcast personal information customers had designated as private, while telling its customers just the opposite.
Facebook agreed to pay a hefty fine on this, only to find itself back in the firing line eight years later for violating the settlement terms – while continuing to hoover up customers’ personal, private data. This time it paid $5 billion for its misdeeds while formally refusing to admit any wrongdoing.
Facebook has inserted itself into the publishing arena without any of the legal liabilities, thanks to a clause (Section 230) in the Communications Decency Act which exempt Big Tech from liability for the posts of their readers, and allows them to moderate content without being considered publishers.
The tech oligarchs of today have become a toxic and divisive force in our economic bloodstream, shaping elections and influencing cultural leanings and preferences. Hawley cites numerous studies to buttress this claim.
Not what was promised
When Facebook was listed in 2012, it was billed as the IPO of the decade, its mission being to create a world more open and connected than ever in history.
What happened, says Hawley, was something quite different. Facebook and its Big Tech peers ushered in the age of addiction.
“Big Tech needed as many Americans online for as long as possible, all in order to extract their personal data and manipulate them into buying the wares of Big Tech’s advertisers.”
This was the business model of Facebook and Google, dressed up as a form of personal liberation and self-growth.
It was Hal Varian, an otherwise obscure economist at the University of California, who first seems to have tripped up on the gold mine staring Facebook and Google in the face: the ability to mass mine and analyse data.
A customer signs up for a Google account and Google surreptitiously slips a “cookie” – essentially a miniature tracking device – onto your computer, and thereafter tracks your every online move. Google lacked a way to make money from its search engine until Hal Varian showed up.
Having previously railed against excessive advertising on search engines, Google’s founders revisited their scruples and decided online advertising was the way of the future after all.
But nothing compares to the trove of information Facebook possesses on its users. In 2012, the company conducted a massive behavioural psychology experiment on 700 000 unwitting users to see if it could change how users were feeling.
It did this by tweaking the frequency with which users were hit with pleasant or unpleasant content. As one scholar noted: “We wanted to see if we could make you feel bad without you noticing. We succeeded.” This was the point at which the real power of Facebook’s Big Data became apparent.
Not for the better
Big Tech has changed human behaviour, and not always for the better. A 2014 study of phone users in the UK found owners checking their phones 221 times a day. This not only blunts users’ natural problem-solving capabilities, it also changes their offline behaviour.
Cases of child depression spiked, as did youth suicide, sometimes for as little as being “unfriended” on Facebook.
What’s to be done about Big Tech which has forced its users into “an ecosystem of addiction, exhibitionism and fear of missing out?”
Time to be spit-up
On the regulatory front, treat them as public utilities, break them up, and scatter them to the winds. Google should be forced to give up YouTube, Facebook should be forced to sell Instagram and WhatsApp, says Hawley.
Then remove their exemption from legal liability for censoring and harming content creators. Let them face the financial penalties of their actions as the lawsuits pile up.
Perhaps more important than all this is reclaiming the social square and re-engaging with family and friends outside of the tablet and the smartphone.
The anti-trust movement is already on the march against Big Tech in Australia, Poland and India. More will surely follow. In the meantime, there’s alternatives to Twitter (Gab), the Chrome browser (such as Brave, which is faster and does not track your online movements), and to Facebook (such as Clouthub).