COLUMN: It’s time to break up Big Tech
Data is the most valued commodity in the world. Its producers aren’t seeing a penny.
Oct. 12, 2020
Noah Wright is a sophomore constitutional democracy major at MU. They are an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.
Oil has lost its place as the most valuable commodity in the world. The gold of the modern age is data, and this $4 trillion-dollar industry is under the control of a select few.
Big Tech has fallen under intense scrutiny for its role in undermining democracy, exacerbating mental health issues and failing to stop the terrorism that breeds in its darkest corners. It’s well past time to break up these companies and take back control over the commodification of what makes us individuals: our fears, beliefs and feelings.
To understand why we must demand our data back, we need transparency in how it is used to extract so much wealth. When a user makes an account on Facebook or uses Google, that user does not have to pay an upfront fee. This business model has deceived the masses, and we are paying an alternative, much more valuable price.
Tech companies don’t simply extract user demographics like age, gender or location. Our data is collected with every digital action we take: Every like, click, share, scroll and exit is extracted by algorithms, sets of mathematical equations that collect data on users in order to predict future content that will keep them engaged.
As time passes, these equations extract more information from users and become more accurate. These algorithms have grown so effective at predicting consumer spending habits that companies now generate an average of two dollars in earnings for every one dollar they spend on Google Ads. Although partially an urban myth, there is truth in the experience of receiving an ad for something that one had simply thought of.
The patterns and personal information of everyone online are sold to advertisers and more nefarious third parties, such as the U.S. government. The government doesn’t have to “spy” on us, we are handing our information over willingly through our digital profiles. We are already living in an Orwellian mass surveillance state, as the information that makes us human is being sold and used to manipulate us in ways that are beyond our understanding.
It is hard to calculate the exact value of an individual's data, but a Vox report estimated that the data taken from an average U.S. adult is worth about $35 a month to advertisers. The email address of a single user has an estimated market value of $89 to any brand. Users pay a hefty price to use these services without even knowing it. Unfortunately, the cost to us is not just economic.
Another feature of these incredibly advanced algorithms is that they allow other information to target us, such as political news. The U.K.’s Information Commissioner's Office recently ordered Facebook to pay a $643,000 fine for its role in selling 87 million users’ data to Cambridge Analytica. This British political consulting firm used data collected on Facebook profiles to influence elections around the world, most notably the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.
Americans are not just divided. We are living completely different realities because the stream of information we receive is curtailed to our own biases. Not only does this create an echo chamber, it eradicates the very concept of truth. Fake news is not new, but it has never been able to spread so quickly and in such a targeted way.
The internet is a hotbed for hate, evident by a scroll through just about any YouTube comment section. Tragically, the echo chamber effect can lead not only to hate, but directly to real-world violence. By playing to our biases and fears, violent ideologies like white supremacy have been able to spread and target those most receptive to it.
The Christchurch Mosque mass shooting was live streamed on Facebook, and the terrorist responsible left behind a manifesto filled with cultural references that arose from far-right internet circles. From incel chat rooms on Reddit to the spreading of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the power of artificially intelligent algorithms has put the uneducated and disenfranchised at risk for radicalization.
We also pay the cost with our mental health. According to the Global Web Index, Generation Z spends an average of three hours a day on social media. An entire generation of people is being used as test subjects, and the preliminary results are disheartening. The suicide rate of America’s youngest generation is unprecedented, among many other troubling signs of mental health trends for young people. The Canadian Medical Association Journal reviewed dozens of studies in February and concluded that lengthy social media usage has led to higher rates of suicidal thoughts and self-harm among adolescents.
While there are many factors causing these trends, such as living under late-stage capitalism and the threat of climate apocalypse, social media plays a key role. The human brain was never equipped to be able to process the amount of social interaction allowed to us through social media.
It is easy to derive self-worth from the number of likes and followers one has, and Big Tech companies know this. In order to keep us on our screens and therefore generate the most revenue, the design of these services makes them more addictive than any drug. Dopamine reward loops are a part of the design of these services, and like any addiction, the brain is rewired to crave more.
With all of the problems social media is causing in society, it does provide some benefits. The ability to connect with anyone around the world and share ideas is science fiction come to life. To be clear, I personally enjoy social media and the feeling of sharing my world with others. Social media has allowed us to stay somewhat connected even through a pandemic. Political organization has never been easier, which is why Generation Z is made up of so many passionate leaders and rebels. It’s time to take radical action to ensure that this technology is being used in all the positive ways it can be and take out the business incentives that are leading to so much chaos.
One revolutionary idea is to create a digital bill of rights, outlined by a growing number of academic researchers who are noticing the troubling sides of Big Tech. These plans essentially give citizens the right to their privacy, the right to know how their data is used and the ability to cash in on the sale of our most valued commodity. A practical example of this would be a legal contract between users and corporations specifying how much data the user is willing to sell, and the user then receiving a monthly stipend at that agreed-upon rate.
The technology to make this possible is already here, but there is no incentive for Big Tech companies to give up their business for the sake of humanity. Because the world’s largest market is controlled by such few tech companies, they have reached tyrannical power. With antitrust laws a thing of the past, companies such as Amazon and Google have surpassed the great monopolies of the past. These trillion-dollar companies have unmatched power, and they must be broken up.
This reorganization would have immediate benefit for small business economies such as Columbia. Small-town America did not die a slow death—it was murdered by the greed and power of a select few companies which control where things are bought and sold.
The internet itself was created through taxpayer funding. Despite this, the wealth and power granted by this technology is in the hands of private corporations. For the sake of humanity, we need to take back this power into public hands. By making search engines and social media platforms public services, we can reorient their functions to be connection instead of manipulation. We must get rid of the algorithms designed to make profit and use this technology instead for human benefit.
Drastic action is needed. Technology has gotten out of our control, and the impacts on society are evident: Profit does not align with overall human benefit. In instances like this, they are directly at odds. We must scrutinize Big Tech companies with renewed focus before it’s too late.
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Edited by Sofi Zeman l firstname.lastname@example.org