Noose tightening around Big Tech
The past fortnight was of historical importance from multiple angles: freedom of speech, the role of BigTech, and data privacy, to count the least.
Elon Musk bought Twitter at an astonishing price of US$44bn, partly digging into his purse and balance through debt, in a move to take the social media platform private. The second vital development was the announcement of the European Commission’s Digital Services Act (DSA), the world’s first move to protect private data shared via social media platforms, and finally, the role of Big Tech, who, over the past two decades minted billions by “stealing” personal data of billions of individuals without their explicit consent and selling to needy customers.
Above all, playing “dirty” by suppressing views not palatable to the owners/managers of the platform via various mods: shadowban, total ban, and creating a toxic environment and suppressing freedom of speech, the basic tenet of democracy. All these transpired because this platform (Big Tech) got away easily with no adequate legal safeguard.
The DSA, coming into effect in 2024, is expected to tighten the screw on BigTech. No longer can they practice the way they did “business” thus far. At least, if at all they want their presence in Europe to continue, they should adhere to the DSA provisions. Every nation is becoming aware of the Big Tech’s game plans, and therefore, all of them are looking at DSA as a template to tweak to suit their local conditions. Considering that the users of social media platforms have realized that they have been “commoditized” by Big Tech, coupled with governments’ desire to control the narrative, there is a heightened eagerness to legislate to tame them, though not illegal yet.
“With the DSA, the EU has declared that digital spaces belong to society and are mission-critical to a healthy democracy. The digital must live in a democracy’s house, not as adversaries but as productive family members. Only in this way will knowledge, the true fruit of the digital age, finally be returned to the people to meet the challenges we face as families, communities, and inhabitants of an ailing planet,” writes Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and professor emeritus at Harvard business school. (1)
Zuboff’s criticism of surveillance capitalism and its perpetrators, the Big Tech, is always spot on. Talking to the New York Times in 2021, she has emphatically declared that the “last two years have seen, especially the last decade, the wholesale destruction of privacy.” Why? Because users have unknowingly permitted the Big Tech such as Facebook (now Meta), Apple, Twitter, etc., to “amass huge scale of human-generated data,” which is changing the nature of society. “Because we are allowing them to create these huge asymmetries of knowledge about people. Instead of this being a golden age of the democratization of knowledge, it’s turned into something very different from what any of us expected,” she said. (2)
The Big Tech’s grip on our lives is enormous. Says Kiran Yellupula, ex-IBM, ex-Accenture, Infosys: “Our minds, economy, natural security, democracy, and progress are invisibly controlled by a few technology firs. More powerthan governments, they wield immense power. For example, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook) and Amazon platforms dominate global digital advertising with 74% mindshare and influenc3. Such dominance by Big Tech, according to him, leads to the concentration of excessive power, making ecnoomomies heavily dependent, disrupting the financial syistem, the economy and geopolitics. Often, this also stifles fair busines conduct, competition, data protection and data-sharing,” adds he. Scary, indeed. (3)
India is legislating the Personal Data Protection Bill. It is worth listening to what Supreme Court Justice Indira Banerjee says: “Today, there are 8 million users on internet & technicalqa entities such as FaceBook. Google has large numbe rof clients in the country. Important apps are online to which person has to disclose personal information which does not receive as secret. I don’t know how much data gets stolen in the process.”
What prevails in India today? According to her, there are complaints of posts in complete breach of privacy. In the 2017 Supreme Court judgment in Justice KS Puttaswamy versus Union of India, the nine-member bench held that the Right to Privacy is a Fundamental Right. However, the judgment itself has some exceptions to the rule of privacy. “Information and privacy need balancing. … It is important to see that power is exercised bonafide and limits are observed and maintained. While holding that right to privacy is in an intrinsic part of right to life, the SC highlighted the government to examine robust regime for data protection.”
Following the KS Puttaswamy case, the government appointed a committee under Justice BN Srikrishna. Justice Banerjee points out that “any effective law needs to be discussed threadbare. It is better to not have law rather than created hurried law which creates more problems rather than it solves.”
“if you’re using a device that uses the Internet, then you’re producing data, and that data isn’t just floating around in cyberspace. Rather, it’s being monetized by the company that made the device and the companies that they sell your data to. “
Fortunately, we read the privacy policies of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, and Google to find out the data big tech companies have on you. The results might surprise you.
As far as logging most of your data goes, the prize goes to Google, which isn’t surprising as their entire business is based on data. Apple’s the best company for your privacy, only keeping the data needed to uphold your account.
Twitter and Facebook both keep more information than they have to, although, with Facebook, it’s mostly the data you’ve entered yourself. Amazon lies directly beneath Apple in terms of privacy. In my opinion, that’s because their site isn’t as dependent on advertising revenue as Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
Facebook, or Meta, as it is known now, claims that it has no control over the data it collects from users. In an internal document leaked, this is what the data engineering team debates:
“We were surprised in 2021 with regulatory changes in the European and India that will restrict 1P data use, setting the stage for a global regulatory push toward consent for 1P data use in ads. Our past policy enforcement plans were already insufficient (on any timeframe) for hanling 2PD concerns. The gap with success (scalably enforcing policy) is now an order of magniture larger withi the increased 1P governance. We fo not have an adequate level of control and explainability over how our systems use data, and thus we can’t confidently ake controlled policy changes or external commitments such as ‘we will not use x data for Y purpose.’ And yet, this is exactly what regulators expect us to do, increasing our risk of mistakes and misrepresentation.”
It is not inappropriate to repeat Yuval Noah Harari’s assessment that the big tech knows more about you than yourself. How? In the garb of enabling better performance in whatever one does, they get into one’s psyche to study, assess, evaluate and project and guide you wherever it desires. Yes, mind-control. Yes, we are a puppet in their hands. No wonder the governments are concerned about their control over the population slipping away from their hands. If this is not bewildering and scary, what else?
(1) Brussels has fired the starting gun in the fightback against Big Tech, Financial Times, 3 May 2022