The Danger of Impending Tech Monopolies & What We Can Do

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress following the Cambridge Analytics investigation. At one point, Senator Lindsey Graham asked if there was an alternative to Facebook. Zuckerberg dodged the question until Graham bluntly asked, “You don’t think you have a monopoly?” Tech companies, such as Facebook, don’t necessarily drive up prices for consumers, but they do raise the barrier of entry for companies seeking to join the marketplace, thereby limiting the ability of consumers to disrupt the existing technological status quo.

Recently, a friend attempted to join Facebook and was prompted to provide a legal form of identification. After years of evolving from a online bookseller, Amazon has set up surveillance systems in consenting consumers’ homes. Google has become the gatekeeper to the Internet, adjusting algorithms to censor news and selectively filter search results. Apple accounts for 80% of global phone sales.

It is becoming more and more apparent that the large and powerful technology companies are becoming increasingly powerful, and squashing any new companies that threaten to compete. Most of the aforementioned companies are known for collecting, storing, selling, researching and, in other ways monetizing, the data of their users. This data–email contacts, purchase history, internet browsing patterns, and GPS coordinates–may seem trivial individually, but, when taken together, they can represent a clearer picture of than you may wish to present to strangers.

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different that saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

― Edward Snowden

In college, a professor recommended a book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. Researchers raided people’s trash bins and were able discern a disconcerting amount of information from their trash. Just think about what you have in your trash, and what insights it offers into your life. Do you have baby diapers or used condoms; microwave meals or vegetable scraps; medical invoices or the first draft of your discarded novel? Each of these artifacts offers a different glimpse into your life and the implication that you’re a parent, bachelor, or disabled person could influence how advertisers appeal to you and how insurance companies bill you.

That book terrified me and, though I have no concern about people riffling through my trash, I have since been vigilant about shredding personal documents and assuming everything I throw out is open to the public eye. However, it took me a bit more time to apply this same principle to my digital trails.

I worked with that same professor on research into social media, particularity what could be discerned by viewing someone’s Facebook profile. I spent an entire semester, approximately 160 hours, scrolling through strangers’ Facebook profiles and then filling out personality tests as if I were the study participant. The similarity between the results of the study participant and the researcher were eerily similar–after three minutes, I could predict personality traits with 70% accuracy. That was eight years ago, without the assistance of modern algorithms or back-end data collection.

I recently came across an interesting article on Ted Ideas, which delved into the ways the highly-probable technology monopolies could pose a threat, not only to potential competitors but also the consumer. The greatest danger is in the concentration of power, data, and control over both the public space and the evolution of technology. Some would even argue that we’re moving towards a place of cultural hegemony, where domination will be achieve by controlling the ideas and assumption available for public consumption.

“Tech is just the latest vehicle for very rich people to use well-tested techniques of buying political influence, monopolistic behavior and avoiding regulation.”

― Jamie Bartlett

Journalist Jamie Bartlett has written extensively on how technology has been imbued with certain values and assumptions about how the world works, thereby transforming people’s perceptions in accord with these ideas. Since the early-90s, tech startups have been embracing a belief in “disruption”–the idea that progress is achieve through destroying old industries and replacing them with something new and digital. Aspiring business people flock to Silicon Valley to bring their world-changing concepts to fruition, but investors expect profit margins and growth targets. The bottom line becomes the top priority as customers are sold on the glossy idea of technological progress. 

It’s no accident that the average first-world inhabitant views gadgets as a sign of progress, total individualism as empowerment, and disruption as the path to liberation. Phones, apps, and web browsers have been built and marketed by multi-million dollar corporations, purporting to be at the forefront of exciting and freeing new technologies. What they don’t explicitly state is that their organizations are built on a model of data extraction and surveillance capitalism.

The Googles, Facebooks, and Apples of the world have the power, influence, and funding to funnel resources toward individuals and ideas that match their own visions and ideals. This, in turn, grows and perpetuates the views and opinions of those in power, subtly altering society’s perceptions about technology. In 2018, 50 percent of Millennials are addicted to their iPhones, 30 percent of Generation Z hope to make a career as a Youtube star, and 42 percent of toddlers are using an iPad before they learn to speak. I don’t know about you, but these statistics make me uneasy.

“The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people.”
― Jaron Lanier

As a collective society, we no longer look to the government to solve our problems, but instead our tech leaders. Elon Musk is making strides in space travel, Mark Zuckerberg is battling fake news, Jeff Bezos funds scholarships, and Bill Gates has taken it upon himself to alleviate suffering in third world countries. I can’t argue that these are not all admirable endeavors. However, I think we must ask ourselves: if corporations have more power, funding, and initiative than our federal and state governments, and these same corporations are firstly concerned with their profit margin, what are the long-term implications for the citizens’ supporting these corporations in hopes of a better world for everyone?

Jamie Bartlett suggests, and I would agree, that the victory for the monopoly is not over economics or politics, but over assumptions, ideas, and possible futures. When the large technology companies hold a monopoly over commonplace beliefs, they won’t need to lobby or buy out competitors. They will be such a vital part of our lives and minds, that we won’t be able to image a world without them. In some respects, I think we’re already reached this point.

So, what can we do to disarm these corporate monopolies? To begin, the government may consider implementing an authority which reviews any takeovers that stifle innovation, squash competition, or involve the acquisition of large quantities of valuable data. More radically, large companies might be broken up when their size becomes detrimental to the economic marketplace. For example, Facebook might be forced to sell off Instagram and WhatsApp while Google would divest itself from YouTube.

Furthermore, citizens must push for measures the ensure tech giants are help accountable for extreme content posted on their platforms. Rather than external policing, we would request the establishment a new, independent standards body, designed solely to govern the handling of such extreme or controversial content. The current methods of self-regulation and arbitrary government response are clearly not working.

Concerns are growing among the general population over the collection and manipulation of data. We might require tech companies to practice transparency, requiring the search algorithms to be made available to authorities or another regulating body. The application of transparency becomes even more important as data companies develop and begin implementing AI, creating the potentiality of monopoly abuse and manipulation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must fight to expand the rights of people to their own personal data. The EU’s recent General Data Protection Regulation is a step in the right direction, but still needs to prove itself in practice.

“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World”

In all truth, we, as individuals, hold almost no power nor influence against major technology corporations. However, I implore you to  consider the possibility that your closely-held beliefs about the world may be a product of external sources, including the technology you use everyday. And, if you feel uncomfortable with the monopolies–not only over the economic marketplace, but over the ideas you’re being exposed to–consider cutting back on Amazon spending, using StartPage instead of Google, or removing your personal details from Facebook. If you’re feeling especially upset or uncomfortable with the idea of tech monopoly, consider deleting your accounts permanently. I did it, and I can assure you that reclaiming my life is far more liberating than any up-and-coming technology.

4 thoughts on “The Danger of Impending Tech Monopolies & What We Can Do

    1. I am right there with you. It’s scary stuff, and perhaps the most freighting realization is that people don’t believe that they’re being corralled right into the slaughterhouse. Perhaps ethical people will interject and we won’t reach the “worst case scenario,” but I don’t feel comfortable at all chancing it.

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