Domestic Affairs

The Big Tech Problem Part 2: Potential Solutions

This is part two of a series on Big Tech. The first part can be read here.

“What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” — C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

In my last article, I talked about the problems posed by big tech and revealed at the end that all of these problems are really one: that we have given control of large parts of our lives to technology, and thus to tech companies, which makes our lives more efficient. This comes with the cost of giving some control of our lives to tech companies. The current controversy over censorship of conservative voices is merely the tip of the iceberg of what these companies are capable of doing. Handing control of these companies to the government would at best destroy them and at worst unify the new power of the internet with the old power of the state, posing a threat to liberty and democracy of which Orwell could have only dreamed. This is not hypothetical, as China has already demonstrated what can happen when big tech and big government unite. The question then is if Big Tech’s power is an inevitable corollary of our reliance on technology and, if giving this power to anyone else besides big tech is either impossible or inadvisable, what can be done?

In order to understand how to weaken Big Tech’s power, we need to ask how Big Tech got so much power in the first place. First, it is important to clarify what Big Tech actually is. The term “Big Tech” is commonly used as a catchall term for a set of powerful technology companies, but only some of these companies are powerful enough to be included. Netflix is an influential tech company, but it rarely gets discussed in conversations about reigning in Big Tech. There is a case to be made that Microsoft is the most influential tech company in history, as they control the software on which the modern business world is based, yet Microsoft is not viewed as an impending threat to democracy. Twitter is a comparative lightweight (with a market cap of about 15% of Facebook’s), yet it is practically the poster child for Big Tech run amok. 

While the intricacies of who constitutes Big Tech is interesting, this article will treat Big Tech as an umbrella term for technology companies who have control of a significant social media platform or major search engine (sorry, Bing), or that have access to a significant amount of consumer data. This is not an entirely satisfactory definition, as it excludes Netflix while including Parler. Microsoft owns LinkedIn, so it still counts, as does Amazon with its trove of user data. This definition includes most of the companies that are commonly discussed as threats to our society. 

So how exactly did social media and search engine companies get so much influence? By giving us things that we wanted. The stories of these companies’ founding is quite simple: there was an unmet need in society, such as the desire for easier access to information or a better way to connect with friends, and these companies met it. They have collected a vast amount of data that can, and has, been used to make the economy vastly more efficient. And what have they done with the fortune these activities afforded them? They have largely sunk them into R&D to produce yet more technology. They use it to support services, such as Gmail and YouTube, which are largely free of charge and provide us with hitherto unimagined quantities of convenience and entertainment respectively. 

However, we cannot get something for nothing, and we do pay for these services — just not in money. The first way we pay is in our data. Everyone in the world has a unique set of data, including their age, gender, hometown, interests, temperament, etc. that, as individual datum, are useless but  can be extremely useful when aggregated. The business model of many tech companies, including social media companies, is to harvest this data and sell it to whoever can make the best use of it. They then compensate the data providers – us – both by giving us free access to their services and using their data to improve our user experience. 

This, incidentally, shows the fallacy in complaining about how tech companies handle “consumer data.” First of all, consumer data is a misnomer, as, unless you pay Google or Facebook, you are not a consumer of theirs. Second of all, the data that Big Tech collects on us isn’t our data — it’s theirs, fairly bought and paid for with their free services. Complaining about Big Tech taking your data when you use their service is like complaining that Disneyworld makes you pay to enter their park: if you don’t like the price, then don’t use the service. Many people might think that the value of our personal data is too high to be spent like this. If so, they are free to refuse to sell it to Big Tech and get off of their services. 

The trade doesn’t stop at the relatively benign stage of services for data but rather extends to far more sinister powers. After all, it is not exactly a threat to democracy if Facebook knows your shoe size. As discussed in my preceding piece, Google and Facebook have vast influence over elections, including the capability to swing 1 in 4 worldwide. How, exactly, do they have so much power over elections? Well, they control what information we see. A minor tweak in an algorithm can make or break a news story about, say, the corrupt son of a politician or a government’s progress on producing a vaccine. So why is our information consumption dependent on Big Tech algorithms? Because they were largely built to bring us the news we want. We naturally tend to seek out news that reinforces our preexisting biases, and after a while Big Tech companies have a pretty good idea of what piques our partisan fancy. If a social media company changed its algorithm so that we were exposed to news outside our echo chamber, we would quickly become bored and seek out a platform that better catered to our needs.

Why, exactly, are we getting our news from social media anyway? It shouldn’t take scientific studies (of which there are an abundance) for us to realize the negative effects of social media echo chambers. Most of us realize intuitively that maybe getting all of our news from Facebook or Twitter might make us subject to both our own biases and those of the tech companies, although recent evidence suggests the echo chamber effects of social media may be overstated. Regardless, the fact is that we chose this. No one is forcing the one fifth of Americans who are completely dependent on social media for their news to remain so – it is a free choice on their part. If everyone chose a set of two of three diverse news organizations which they trusted — if not to be unbiased, then at least to not spread fake news or ignore a major story — and if they ignored the flashy clickbait that pervades social media, then the power of Big Tech over our elections would be vastly diminished. 

So what can the government do to lessen Big Tech’s control over elections? If the problem is apathetic voters swayed by algorithms because they are too lazy to do their own research, they can do nothing. Governments cannot make people consciously seek out news from diverse and reputable sources; that is something only they can do for themselves. Some will suggest that governments create some sort of program to deal with this, such as boosting media literacy among uninformed voters. This, however, would have the unfortunate side effect of placing the class of people who, by definition, are susceptible to propaganda in a place where they are legally required to read or hear whatever the government wishes.

This is not to say that there is nothing we can do. For one, any of us who still rely on a Big Tech company for our news would be wise to stop. We can go directly to news sources we trust and cut out the middleman entirely. However, even trustworthy news sites are still dependent on Big Tech for advertising and views, so how can we wean them off of Big Tech? Well, as unpopular as this is in the era of free journalism, the best solution may be to pay for our news. If media companies have enough loyal subscribers to support them even without views from Big Tech, then they will be freed from the tyranny of the algorithm. Then, they will be free to report on the news they think is important, rather than what will be allowed or will generate clicks on social media. 

If you are too cheap to spend a little bit of money to keep Big Tech from controlling your media, then whatever your stated preferences may be, your revealed preferences show the true monetary value you put on a free press. A world in which journalism is free is a world in which the media is reliant on ad revenue, which means that it is reliant on Big Tech.

For every other problem posed by Big Tech, the story is much the same — Big Tech has only gained so much power because we let it, and we let it because it made our lives easier and, we thought, better. We, the people who make up the market, chose this world for ourselves, and no politician can save us from it without our help. 

If you are really serious about breaking the power of Big Tech, then the first step doesn’t involve the government at all. It starts with you, and there are steps you can take today that will slowly but surely send a market signal that we don’t want Big Tech having the power that they have and that we are willing to undergo minor inconveniences in order to strip them of it.

To prove a point, I did all of the research for this article on DuckDuckGo, a search engine that, unlike Google, doesn’t gather your data. It makes a profit through advertising, but because the ads aren’t targeted it makes only about a one thousandth of a percent of the ad revenue Google does, which is still a hefty seven digits. Using the site, I noticed a slight decrease in the specificity of the search results since DuckDuckGo is unable to tailor search results based on your data like Google does. Other than that, it worked perfectly fine, so if you don’t like the power that Google has, then you are free to not use Google.

In a similar vein, Amazon is often maligned for killing small businesses, but it is really us, the consumers, who are killing small businesses. There is nothing stopping us if we believe that Amazon is so bad for society from exclusively patronizing local businesses, but we don’t. Why? Because Amazon is so much more convenient, which is another way of saying that it is more economically efficient. If we would rather live in a world in which small businesses, rather than large corporations, provide us with our products, then we have the right to alter our economic activity to produce this outcome. We then lose the right to complain if and when this arrangement produces higher prices and longer wait times. 

Some will argue that Big Tech is so monopolistic that we are unable to conduct our lives without it and that we need the government to break it up. For what it’s worth, if Google or Facebook violated some obscure antitrust regulation, I don’t particularly care if the Justice Department slaps their wrists until its ruler breaks. Even if you eliminate the current crop of big tech companies and somehow the problems with this strategy I discussed in the first piece, new companies will arise to replace them. The problem is not Facebook or Google per se, but rather that our behavior incentivises the existence of companies like Facebook or Google. The market forces creating Big Tech are more than a match for any government lawsuit that seeks to destroy it. 

But what about free speech? Surely, Big Tech’s crackdown on freedom of expression is dangerous enough that it requires government intervention. Well, no. Facebook and Twitter are private companies who can ban users for saying things that they dislike, and the government has no more right to stop them then it does to prevent a grocery store from refusing service to an unruly customer. 

But, of course, I don’t like it at all, and neither should you. Big Tech has every right to do what it just did to Donald Trump, Ron Paul and Parler, but that doesn’t make their censorship of conservatives any less dangerous. And lest progressives think that this issue doesn’t affect their lives, sooner or later they are going to disagree with the politics of Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, and then they will find themselves on the wrong end of a shadow ban. Now, this is not to say that any moderation is bad. We should all be perfectly fine with banning people openly calling for violence, using abusive language, sharing explicit material, or generally ruining the experience of social media for normal users. The unpopularity of sites such as Gab, which does not moderate this sort of content, should be proof enough that people are perfectly fine with some moderation. I am even fine, though this is a prudential call and others will disagree, with banning fringe conspiracies such as Q-Anon or people who deny the Holocaust. (While we are on the subject of people who deny genocides, Big Tech could more than atone for its sins by fact checking and removing disinformation about the ongoing Uighur genocide, #canceltheCCP.) Where we ought to draw the line is when Big Tech uses its muscle against mainstream political views in an open effort to help one political faction against the other (the evidence that they currently do this is presented in part I of this series).

So what should we do when Big Tech companies act in a way that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment? Well, if we think they are using their power in an unethical way, then our first move ought to be to stop giving them more. If you think that Facebook has too many users, then get off Facebook, or at least organize a boycott until they change their policies. The network effect makes Big Tech powerful, but it also means that it is very vulnerable to a mass desertion of people away from its products. The key to putting political pressure on social media companies is that it needs to be a joint effort. Both conservatives and progressives believe that Big Tech is too powerful, and both conservatives and progressives would like to see it taken down a peg, albeit for different reasons. 

One sure way to get Big Tech’s attention would be for thought leaders of both parties to get together and present Big Tech with a list of demands. Conservatives would likely demand more respect for freedom of speech, whereas progressives would demand more data privacy — and for Big Tech to do more against the legitimately fake news that these platforms often unwittingly spread. If, say, Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson simultaneously told their followers to stay off social media until Big Tech ran their platforms in a way more congenital to the wishes of the American people, then that would get the attention of Silicon Valley quickly without sacrificing one more ounce of power to the government. The free market built these companies and, if people are willing to undergo a little privation, then the free market can reign them in. I will admit this plan is far-fetched, but I propose it more to clarify that the solution to defending free speech from Big Tech lies not with far away politicians making exoteric changes but with us, the producers of the data that keeps Big Tech running. 

We could, quite simply, refuse to do business with companies that we believe undermine our values. 

And really, if enough of us aren’t willing to go a week or so without social media until these demands are met, then we have become decadent enough to deserve any damage Big Tech is able to do.

Some people will protest that all of my solutions are unworkable because they rely on ordinary people doing things (what the left calls grassroots organizing and the right calls free market incentives). Many of these things will be mildly inconvenient, and all will require that we take a little interest in the world around us. But if we can’t do something as simple as log off social media until free speech or data privacy is respected, then we don’t deserve free speech or data privacy. You cannot have something for nothing, and Big Tech has every right to ignore us until we make clear that all of our talk about free speech and data privacy is more than just virtue signaling — if indeed it is. 

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