Law in the Internet Society

Fighting Against Big Tech

-- By YiShanYin - 14 Jan 2022

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. 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 are overwhelmingly powerful and ubiquitous. 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 privacy, has long been feeding Google with information of its users’ behaviors by setting Google as the default search engine on iPhones in exchange for revenue sharing. 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 difficult–although not impossible–for an average consumer to fend off the ubiquitous intrusion. In the experiment of “digital veganism,” reporter Kashmir Hill tried to block all services provided by the Big Tech. The steps she took for the experiment are worth noting–setting up a VPN, getting rid of all “smart” devices, using a laptop with Linux as its operating system, and refusing all services provided by Big Tech, including streaming, web services, and network services. All of her approaches were aimed at eliminating Big Tech footprints entirely from her daily life, which would in turn protect her privacy. She concluded that it was “impossible” to live without Big Tech because while one can actively avoid using such services on one’s end, the counterparties she is dealing with might not. But all is not lost–from a privacy-preserving point of view, this would largely mitigate privacy problems. On the one hand, data would not be controlled and transmitted by these companies through their hardware products; on the other hand, utilizing free software for basic tasks would significantly mitigate the risk of data misappropriation. Another interesting observation is that Ms. Hill pointed out it was difficult for her to find alternatives for Microsoft-owned LinkedIn? and Skype, both of which she frequently used. This is probably due to the network effect of these networking and communication services–the more users there are, the better the services could be. And when the services are so good that everyone is on them, you would have to decide whether you should trade personal information for using these platforms. An alternative is to host one’s own website, establish one’s own email server, and conduct communications on the Internet without going through the centralized networks of the Big Tech.

Building on what Ms. Hill has done on a personal level, government actions should also be taken to eliminate the dominance of data control by the Big Tech. Currently, the US government intends to resolve the issue by launching antitrust investigations and lawsuits against Big Tech and proposing new bills to outlaw exclusionary conducts such as self-preferencing and acquiring rival platforms. However, these measures are aimed at opening up the market for new competitors to enter, without resolving the predatory relationship between the platforms and their users in terms of data collection. Therefore, more radical measures should be taken. As Professor Moglen suggests, the government should build the infrastructure for web services, calendaring, email services, etc, by making devices that could carry out such functions accessible for everyone. Basic coding should be taught in schools so that everyone could get the chance to gain autonomy in their digital lives and know that alternative options exist. Only after this issue is widely acknowledged can the resolutions begin to come into effect.

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Webs Webs

r3 - 15 Jan 2022 - 03:47:29 - YiShanYin
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