Law in the Internet Society

Fighting Against Big Tech

-- By YiShanYin - 11 Dec 2021

Personal experience

My daily life has been consumed by the Big Tech. I wake up every day with two Apple devices in the room. I begin my day by checking the to-do list on my Google calendar. When I go to class, I would type my notes in Google Docs, and retrieve all the reference materials from Google Drive. When I come home and find out I’m running out of groceries, toilet papers, or hard drive memory, I would simply click on my purchase history on Amazon and order some more. During the course of a day, there would be countless times when I check Messenger, WhatsApp? , and scroll through Instagram feeds looking for unread information. As I have been preparing for the upcoming final exams, I must rely on Amazon Web Service to access the class recordings on Echo360 (which I only learned about a few days ago when the IT helpdesk informed the Law School of the Echo360 outage).

I navigate through these activities knowing perfectly well that I am using these services at the expense of my privacy and identity, which is for the corporates to freely use and profit from. For the sake of convenience, I continue to feed the services with even more personal information, just so these services would be trained to cater to my needs. This is my daily life in a nutshell, and I suspect that I am just one out of millions of people who fall into these patterns.

What is wrong with Big Tech?

Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple together are worth $4 trillion. By providing either free-of-charge or highly competitive services and products, these companies collect a large amount of personal data that can be used to generate ad revenues or to improve the service or product itself. The notorious Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal was an alarming demonstration of how easy it was to obtain user information without disclosing the real purpose. Even though the data breach was ultimately exposed, irreversible damage was already caused. Even Apple, who claims to be a strong believer in fundamental privacy rights, has long been feeding Google with information of its users’ behaviors by setting Google as the default search engine on Safari, Siri and Spotlight in exchange for an annual revenue share of around $8-12 billion. The massive data collected not only enables the companies to grow and accommodate more users on the platforms but further forms a barrier to prevent potential rivals from entering the market. As revealed in the House Judicial Subcommittee Investigation Report in 2020, the Big Four have been serving as “gatekeepers over key channels of distribution” which “wield tremendous power, abuse it, and extract valuable data from people and businesses that rely on them.”

What can be done to remedy the problem?

Would it be possible to stop Big Tech from exploiting user information? On a personal level, it is hard to imagine that an average consumer would be able to fend off the ubiquitous intrusion. Reporter Kashmir Hill went on an experiment of “digital veganism,” where she tried to block the services and goods provided by the Big Tech. However, she concluded that it was “impossible” to avoid their services altogether due to the massive infrastructures these companies provide–not only to retail consumers but also to other businesses. That is to say, even if you think you could avoid contact with the Big Tech on your end, the counterparties that you are dealing with might not. Unless you are equipped with the adequate technical knowledge to build the infrastructure for yourself and the self-dependent commitment to avoid all proprietory technologies, practicing digital veganism would be a futile attempt.

What about government actions? Following the House report, the Department of Justice and the Fair Trade Commission have launched antitrust investigations and lawsuits aiming to enjoin Big Tech from abusing their monopoly powers. However, antitrust law, which was first implemented in the 19th century, is never set out to regulate data usage. The problematic misuse would not be effectively dealt with through an antitrust action; it would at most be treated as a means to exercise monopoly powers. Realizing that the current antitrust framework is an insufficient tool to regulate such actions, lawmakers are proposing new bills to outlaw exclusionary conducts such as self-preferencing and acquiring rival platforms. However, these bills are still aimed at opening up the market for new competitors to enter, without addressing the predatory relationship between the platforms and their users in terms of data collection. While the consumers are seemingly “free” to choose from different service providers, they would most certainly give up their personal information under unequal bargaining powers.

Just as Professor Moglen mentioned in class, even if Big Tech are broken up under antitrust enforcement, it would not make much of a difference in how the industry collects and deals with personal data. It does not matter whether the data are controlled by a single giant company or two slightly smaller companies. The fundamental problem is that privacy has been propertized, and its price is up to the market to decide. Therefore, the most effective way to keep the Big Tech in check is perhaps to prohibit the usage of personal information in any way other than providing services to the consumers, whether the consumers consent to it or not. Although this would practically eliminate the free services currently provided by these companies, it is a price that should be paid. After all, the value of personal information should be treated as higher than that of money.

Seems like sort of a lack of imagination. How about we take a $75 or $100 tiny computer, equip it with the necessary free software to perform the tasks (like calendaring, document sharing, music streaming, etc.) that you need, provide as privacy-preserving as possible modes of interacting with other web services companies (by prohibiting ads and trackers for you, etc.). You take this cheap disposable appliance (which automatically backs itself up securely in encrypted volumes to Amazon S3, or your friend's computer, or wherever you like), plug it into the wall, point your other devices at it, and go in freedom. That exists already, we made it, it's my FreedomBox. Government could teach about such things in the public schools, provide subsidies the way we do with mobile telephony, and otherwise help people to manage their digital lives in a safer way that also helps to undermine oligopoly and autocracy. If we tried that first, maybe we could use more narrowly targeted regulations, and there would be more public understanding of the problem and the proposed remedies.

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r2 - 07 Jan 2022 - 19:21:53 - EbenMoglen
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