What do you think of when you hear “Big Tech”? Do you worry or rejoice?

Is Big Tech a looming behemoth, always looking over your shoulder, relentlessly harvesting your data, and forcing you to use their platform if you want even a semblance of a social life?

Or is Big Tech a beneficent provider of an infinite playground of possibilities, inhabited by your friends, your soon-to-be friends, and the rest of the world?

Chances are, depending on your politics, age, mood or healthy paranoia, your attitude to Big Tech is both.

The truth is that the internet is now an uneasy compromise. To use the ‘free’ services and platforms that Big Tech companies provide they mercilessly monetise your information. Remember if the product is free, the product is you.

Big Tech

We know that Big Tech has too much power over both our private lives and public discourse, but we still use Instagram. And we complain about it on Facebook and tell others via WhatsApp or FB Messenger – ironic really. What is the old saying? Tell it to someone who cares.

GadgetGuy asked Honorary Gadgeteer, US-based Sam Bocetta, a fiercely independent, journalist to give us the USA slant on Big Tech.

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After all, there are major movements over there to pull the teeth from FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google). Sure more companies could be called apprentice FAANGs, so we are not specifically pointing the bone at #DeleteFacebook.

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His last article ‘Alexa invades your privacy and how to stop it’ raised more than a few ‘irebrows’ at Amazon.

Sam’s views reflect the US popular sentiment. And FAANG et al. are gearing up for the fight of their lives – government legislation could make what they are doing now in an unregulated arena highly illegal.

And his article is timely as very senior FAANG representatives appear on 16 July before the US House of Representatives congressional committee in a hearing to discuss the tremendous market power wielded by online platforms.

This hearing comes as the US House Judiciary Committee is probing competition in digital markets as part of an investigation with both Republicans and Democrats expressing bipartisan concern about the power exercised by FAANG. In Australia, the ACCC has released similar preliminary findings and specifically its impact on the concentration of market power and the broader implications of digital platforms.

Breaking Up Big Tech – the big stick approach

Some influential politicians and opinion leaders say that that Big Tech has gotten “too big.” The US public tends to agree although its only half of the story. FAANG might say it is a narrow-minded, not real-world solution.

The argument to break up companies to reduce monopolies and improve competition is not without basis. It makes sense to use the hard-fought US Anti-trust laws that have served it so well since it was first introduced in 1890 as the Sherman Anti-trust Act to deal with anti-competitive behaviour (gouging) in Steel, Sugar, Oil and Railroads. From that came the US Federal Trade Commission in 1914 to investigate and stop unfair methods of competition and deceptive practices. Again not unlike Australia’s ACCC.

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The 1890 argument still stands. If one company controls an entire industry [or segment], there is no competition. Prices go through the roof, and quality does not have to be a priority.

Technology companies based in Seattle or Silicon Valley now account for five-out-of-the-five (100%) of most valuable companies in America (and the world). This led to a spate of well-informed commentary last year from lawyers like Columbia’s Tim Wu to economists like Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff – Big Tech needs control.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has thrown her considerable weight behind it. One of her major campaign proposals is that since “FAANG has too much power, and they’re using that power to hurt business, stifle innovation, and tilt the playing field against everyone else … It’s time to fight back. That’s why I have a plan to break up big tech companies.”

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The problems with the big stick approach are many.

As Wired argued this month, the US Anti-Trust Laws are simply not up to the task. Even if they were, it is far from clear that using these laws to break up Big Tech would actually solve the problems that people have with it. Rather than stopping Facebook collecting data and affecting elections, ten new companies would pop up doing the same thing.

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A lot of these debates are occurring in America, of course, because that’s where Big Tech is. But because of this, they also miss the global picture. It is difficult to argue, for instance, that breaking up Facebook would stop data collection when China owns half of all global VPN services. And even where politicians have tried to introduce privacy legislation into the tech marketplace, it has arguably done more harm than good. Some argue the GDPR itself represents a security risk, in that the company’s carefully collected consent data is now a major target for hackers.

Breaking Free of Big Tech – the legislative bridle

The solution to the ‘problem’ of Big Tech may not be to break up these companies. In an ideal world, we would have a global bill of rights governing privacy and individual freedoms. As you Aussies call it a level playing field where Big Tech can operate if it meets those privacy rights.

Not surprisingly, FAANG et al. support this, but secretly they know that we will never get global legislation (too many parochial issues with the US 51 states, let alone hundreds of countries and nations).

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So, all we can do is tweak, as the UE has done with GDPR, individuals privacy levels. It is not a panacea by any means because all Big Tech needs to do is move operations to ‘Neverland’ to avoid such legislation.

Big Tech – simply break free

If recent industry trends are anything to go by, citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

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The most difficult way is simply donning a tin-foil hat and stop using free Big Tech products. To an extent, your information is already out there, but going cold turkey can significantly reduce your attack vectors and exposure to hackers.

By attack vectors, we mean both personal data you reveal online and the monumental number of data breaches (you can get a free weekly data breach email here) – it is frightening.

Recent high-profile data leaks like that from Instagram have made people more aware than ever about just how much data is being collected on them. And as I argued in my last GadgetGuy article, this includes the devices we have in our homes, our emails, and our browsing data.

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But despite the knowledge that Facebook et al. are dangerous and lead to ID theft or worse, what people want, it seems, is the advantages of huge networks like Facebook and Instagram, without the data harvesting that goes along with them.

Big Tech – arm yourself against privacy intrusion

That’s why one of the biggest tech industry growth sectors over the past five years has been in security tools. Privacy browsers like Brave and TOR, no tracking ad blockers like Trustnav, and several secure, encrypted email systems. In fact, email ‘conglomerates’ like Gmail and Outlook 365 are examples of impressive levels of security.

Ironically much of the encryption tech in these tools started life as black hat hacker tools.

I think they represent the beginning of a revolutionary shift in the way that we use the web. Many people of a certain generation (and I’m one of them) talk wistfully about the early years of the internet, which was a magical place completely free of surveillance. The last ten years have been different, as data harvesting and subsequent monetisation of that data became the norm in that space.

Now, we are in a third age: one characterised by a continual struggle between Big Tech and the people who use it.

Big Tech – does FAANG provide valuable services, or are they our evil overlords?

At its core, the debate about the power and reach of Big Tech, and whether that is a problem, comes down to how we see these companies and how we value our privacy. I put it to you that online privacy is of equal weight to the privacy we expect in our homes and well, private lives. 

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These views are driving the political debate, also. As Vox argued last month, ‘a political promise to stand up to nefarious special interests sounds good, but a promise to take on companies that are offering great bargains is a much dicier proposition’.

These views have also shifted over time. Back in the early 2000s, both the left and the right lauded the ability Big Tech companies to ‘disrupt’ traditional patterns, and usher in a new globalised world.

The pendulum, if  Elizabeth Warren’s policy position is anything to go by, has now decisively shifted in the opposite direction. 

GadgetGuy’s take – taking the good, leaving the bad

Today most people seem to have decided on their position, and it’s this: I want the best of both worlds. I’ll use Facebook, but with a VPN. I’ll use Instagram, but with a fake name. Or I’ll use email, but with PGP.

For now, that uneasy compromise seems to be holding at least until FAANG et al. find other nefarious ways to track, gather and monetise your data.

I welcome any feedback you have and remember Australia is just like America – you just don’t have Donald Trump or Disneyland – yet.