FOSTER: Monopolistic technology companies exploit our data
The most powerful players in the technology industry hold the internet (and your data) in the palm of their hands.
As of 2019, the world’s five biggest technology corporations grew to a combined market value of $4.4 trillion through huge acquisitions of other technology companies and start-ups. Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Facebook have spent the last 15 years buying up all their competition, according to a report from Visual Capitalist.
Alphabet boasted 236 acquisitions as of last year, including that of YouTube, which it bought for $1.65 billion in 2006, and Waze, which it bought for $966 million to bolster the functionality of Google Maps. Google’s acquisition of Waze in 2013 was 1 of 16 others that year, all of which cost the company $1.31 billion.
Other companies acquired by “the Big Five” include Whole Foods Market, LinkedIn, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram, Fitbit and GitHub. All of the services they provide and all the money they bring in are now property of this small handful of companies.
We have seen something similar to this massive accumulation happen before. In the late 19th century, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company and Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel Company dominated their respective markets by buying out their competitors to broaden their control over prices and markets: In other words, creating monopolies.
At its peak, the Standard Oil Company controlled approximately 90 percent of American oil-refining capacity, giving it the power to set the price of the nation’s oil and remain in full control of its output.
Today, companies like Alphabet have almost complete control over how people access information on the internet. Google has been called a “platform monopolist”: It covers more than half of the entire United States search market share and facilitates 80 percent of online search traffic despite the fact that the results you get on Google barely differ from the results you get on Bing.
Both Alphabet and Facebook also own almost the entire market for online advertising. ”Eighty-five cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook,” according to an article in The New York Times.
The reason they are able to achieve such huge profit margins is because “they dominate the content made available on the web while making very little of it themselves,” according to the article. The videos posted to YouTube, products sold on Amazon and websites Google organizes via searches are by and large not created by YouTube, Amazon and Google. They just own the market for the mechanisms that people gain access to them.
Similar to how the Standard Oil Company had full control over dictating how much Americans would pay for oil in the 19th century, Alphabet’s dominance as a search engine in the 21st century allows it to make decisions not only about how much it gets to charge for advertisers, but also about what its users get to see, and how.
When 80 percent of the world’s population are using Google to find their information, that means 80 percent of the world’s population is beholden to whatever narrative Google decides to show them, or whatever narrative it tries to suppress.
Google has been found to “slow and exclude challengers to its dominant search paradigm," according to a study conducted by FTC advisor Tim Wu. It has also been found to prioritize content with Right-wing biases via its search algorithms and autocomplete functions. In other words, with Google as the primary owner of how the majority of people get their information, they can (and do) utilize that power to influence and manipulate public perspectives, attitudes and beliefs.
Furthermore, its control extends past the information it allows its users to access. It also extends toward what it, in turn, collect from those same users.
We do not pay a fee to use many of the platforms owned and operated by these technology companies, like Google or Facebook or Amazon. But, what we do not pay them in fees, we pay instead with our data, the lifeblood of Silicon Valley’s economic model.
Consider the data that can be gathered via some of the big five acquisitions mentioned previously. WhatsApp (now owned by Facebook) is used by 1.5 billion people worldwide, many of whom use it as their primary method of communication.
The application also shares data gathered via the conversations people have on it with Facebook, which in turn uses it to better tailor targeted ads to its users. It also shares this data with the entire “Facebook family of companies," a family which only grows larger as Facebook continues to expand its acquisitions.
Video doorbell company Ring (owned by Amazon) was found to collect and disburse data and personal information such as users’ names, IP addresses and sensor data from the doorbell’s camera.
When these massive technology companies own the internet, they get to make the rules, and when they own everything, there is nowhere you can run to if you do not want to play by them. Allowing them to continue to operate unregulated means allowing them to continue to grow, all the while forfeiting more and more of our data to them.
Cameron Foster is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. Their column, "Techsploitation," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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