Law in the Internet Society

One Step at a Time: The Shift in Perceptions Towards Big Tech and Why it Matters

-- By AlexandraWeissfisch - 21 Oct 2021

Section I: Push Back Against Big Tech

We initially perceived Big Tech’s services as facilitating connections with one another and democratizing access to information on the Web. Most of us welcomed these services with open arms and few questions.

Bombarded with marketing for services that could digitally connect us with other people, allow us to share information with the click of a button, listen to all kinds of music, store photos online, we became receptive to these services. More than that, we became reliant on them.

As the Big Tech companies providing these services have continued to grow and become more powerful, censorship has become an ever-important problem. In exchange for receiving these free services, Big Tech companies have quietly and carefully been collecting data that most of us did not even realize was collectable. And they have been using our data in ways that we could not even conceive. Tech companies have used censorship as a tool to change our behavior and increase engagement with their services.

But the exterior shell of Big Tech is starting to wither away. And people are becoming increasingly uneasy with what that they are seeing. In the past few years, we have seen an explosion of pushback against Big Tech practices on several levels. On the political front, calls for increased regulation have risen dramatically. And after forty years of allowing unrestricted growth of Big Tech, lawmakers have started to respond. Last year, CEOS of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon testified before Congress on antitrust concerns. The Justice Department has since filed an antitrust suit against Google. While we have yet to see if anything substantial results from these efforts, it is one step forward. On the cultural front we have seen increasing numbers of articles, tv-shows, movies, taking on negative perspectives of Big Tech, attempting to expose the truth behind their practices. And on a more practical and actionable front, we see that an increasing number of users are taking steps to free themselves (somewhat) from the hold of Big Tech, for example through Adblock and VPN use.

Perceptions are changing – and these attitude shifts away from Big Tech will pave the way for an increased awareness of alternatives.

Section II: Is the Push Great Enough?

Despite this cultural shift in the perception of Big Tech, the half-measures that most of us are taking do not go far enough to rid ourselves of what we realize is wrong with these services. So why are we not turning in mass and embracing the free software movement that is rid of what we have realized we want to move away from in Big Tech? Why are we not taking action and welcoming software that reinforces our rights as free individuals?

Based on our class discussions and readings so far, I see four main steps that are necessary in pursuit of such a goal. Firstly, we need to become aware of the problems with what we are currently using. Secondly, there need to be alternatives available for consumer use. Thirdly, we need to be aware that these alternatives exist. And lastly, we need to want to embrace those alternatives, and realize that they are equal to or superior to the effectiveness of the services we have grown accustomed to.

As discussed above, the first step has been met, with a growing awareness of the ill practices pursued by Big Tech. The second step has also been met, with the existence of services that don’t require surveillance techniques, and that exist in a de-centralized and de-industrialized web. We get stuck on the third step, which has not yet been met, as the majority of users of Big Tech services do not realize that alternatives exist. And, of course, the last step has not been met. We know what we don’t want, but we need to be aware that alternatives exist, and we need to want to break our built-in habits to properly embrace those alternatives.

Section III: Can we Draw on the Environmental Movement?

It may be insightful to compare the environmental movement with the free software movement. Given the similarities between privacy pollution and atmospheric pollution, it is a comparison that makes sense to draw.

In response to the increasing levels of atmospheric pollution, people eventually became aware of the dire consequences. With that knowledge and awareness, it became increasingly clear in the early 1980s that changes had to be made to combat climate change. And things have been changing, both at the governmental level (e.g., the Paris Agreement), and at the individual level (e.g., zero emission vehicles, recycling). But it was beginning in late 2018 that climate strikes emerged with a series on international protests demanding action be taken. These strikes were, for the most part, a part of the school strike for climate movement, inspired by climate activist Greta Thunberg, and largely led by students.

Although there is still a long way to go in combating climate change, there has been progress. Any why is this? Because people finally understand the significance of the threat that comes with continuing the status quo. Alternatives exist (e.g., renewable energy sources), people are aware of those alternatives, and people want a future on our planet. Drawing on comparisons with the environmental movement, we should see the day-to-day shifts in the cultural perception towards Big Tech as a step, albeit a small step, forward. And just as the environmental movement is largely rooted in a generational cycle, the third step towards pursuing a world free from the control of Big Tech – awareness that alternatives exist – is similarly impacted by the generational cycle. Every year, more and more people are growing up with the internet as it currently stands shaping and framing their minds. They are growing up in the very context of Big Tech, absorbed in these services, without the knowledge that an alternative exists. While the younger generations are central to major cycles of changes in the environmental movement, it is really the older generations that could be central to change in the Big Tech context. Those that grew up using the internet before the bombardment, disturbance and surveillance that accompanied Big Tech services, are essential. It is those generations of people whose minds were not formed in relation to the internet, that can play an instrumental role in helping younger generations realize that alternatives do exist.

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r3 - 06 Jan 2022 - 17:42:27 - AlexandraWeissfisch
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