Big Tech poses an existential threat to democracy

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When the US antitrust subcommittee invited the CEOs of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google to testify before congress on July 29th, judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler summarised the existential threat currently facing global enterprise: “These companies now comprise the essential infrastructure of the 21st century” and through this “these companies now control access to markets”. 

As the power of Silicon Valley has increased in the 21st century, an indisputable pattern has emerged of big tech firms extracting data from users and then abusing their irreconcilable power to stifle, acquire and kill potential competition.

Despite vocal insistences from chief executives that the tech giants act as a benefactor to small and medium sized enterprises, these start-ups often operate under the destructive whims of market leaders. 

During the hearing, Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram. While it was no secret that Facebook was in the process of developing a rival at the time, Facebook Camera, it was simply decided that they should scrap plans for a competing app and simply purchase the now-ubiquitous photo and video app. 

An indisputable pattern has emerged of big tech firms…abusing their irreconcilable power.

Many believe the deal was pushed through in order to neutralise potential competition, a violation of antitrust laws in the US, while Instagram founder Kevin Systrom has since suggested that the acquisition was conducted in a threatening manner. 

Operating in a similar vein, Amazon’s practices were exposed in an article for The Wall Street Journal earlier this year which claims that the company uses data from third party sellers to determine which products to create, copying the sellers’ product in the process. 

DefinedCrowd, a start-up providing artificial intelligence training and machine learning initiatives, claimed that after Amazon gained access to confidential information via its Alexa Fund, the Venture Capital tributary of the business, they simply launched an artificial intelligence product that does exactly what DefinedCrowd does. 

Apple has often been able to distance themselves from its big tech rivals since its primary source of revenue comes from product sales, rather than the monetisation of data. Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, even launched an advertising campaign in 2019 emphasising its strict rules on user privacy. 

Practices…point to a monopolistic chokehold over modern capital.

Yet claims from Spotify imply that Apple uses its 30% commission fee on third party apps to force the former to drive up prices, hence giving its own competing software, Apple Music, a competitive advantage. This has since evolved into reports that Apple collects data from its payment processing system to decide whether it is profitable to launch a competing app. For apps wishing to feature on iOS devices, there is often little alternative but to compromise their data and accept Apple’s commission fees.

It was Google’s Sundar Pichai who arguably came under the most intense scrutiny during the hearing. The antitrust subcommittee drew attention to Brian Warner, who received an email from Google in 2014 in relation to his website CelebrityNetWorth.com, enquiring as to whether Google could use his data. When Warner refused, Google took the data anyway. 

Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive of Yelp, endured a similar experience. When Yelp claimed in 2017 that Google were stealing their restaurant reviews and then using them for their own platform, often displayed at the top of the search page, Yelp were promptly threatened with being delisted. 

Each of the executives attempted to convince the subcommittee that competition is rife in the technology market, yet their practices continue to point to a monopolistic chokehold over modern capital.

The power of these conglomerates inevitably has far reaching consequences for the end consumer.

85% of all online searches go through Google, so being delisted from the site effectively ensures that a given website ceases to exist. For those who are displayed, they must settle for being featured below Google’s own platforms; 63% of searches that begin on Google end on Google. Sites such as Yelp and CelebrityNetWorth.com live in a world where they can be destroyed at any given moment. 

Facebook currently monitors and harvests data on 2.7 billion monthly users. According to Rana Foroohar’s 2019 exposé Don’t Be Evil, the social media platform is aware when its teenage users feel hopeless, depressed, or suicidal, data it no doubt monetises. 

Amazon controls approximately 40% of the online retail market. For small enterprises, being able to advertise their products on Amazon’s website offers little reprieve when the $1 trillion company buries these goods below a laundry list of its own products, some of which have been copied from the start ups it claims to aid.

The power of these conglomerates inevitably has far reaching consequences for the end consumer. Currently, Facebook has the ability to control what their users see, watch and read during a general election, referendum or global pandemic. Google’s acquisition of Double Click in 2007 allowed them to connect identities to user searches, effectively eliminating anonymity on the internet. In 2019 Apple removed HKmap.live, an app used by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong to track police activity, revealing that Apple’s good intentions on user privacy cease at China’s border. For workers operating under dangerous conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, it is all too apparent how drastically lives can be affected by the unencumbered market power of a handful of companies.

Image: Morning Brew via Unsplash.

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