By Kean Birch
Big Tech was in the policy spotlight again recently with another U.S. Congressional hearing on Oct. 1, this time focused on “Proposals to Strengthen the Antitrust Laws and Restore Competition Online.”
The hearing was the culmination of a long Congressional investigation into Big Tech — defined as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google/Alphabet, and Microsoft — and growing concerns about antitrust, market power, and anticompetitive practices in the technology sector.
Echoes of these concerns are present in Canada, although regulatory action is limited. After the last Congressional hearing in late July, though, the Competition Bureau Canada launched an investigation into Amazon’s business practices, focusing on a potential “abuse of dominance” relating to Amazon’s third-party seller policies and whether these policies constrain competition on its digital platform.
Is this limited regulatory action going to get at the problems with Big Tech? Probably not, so it’s worth considering how we could and should deal with the problems of Big Tech.
Now, Big Tech corporations are highly diverse. For example, almost all Facebook’s revenues come from advertising, while over half of Apple’s revenues still come from selling iPhones. What Big Tech has in common is their collection of our personal data.
For some, like Facebook, selling access to our data is their income; but for others, like Apple, our data drives the development of their products and services. Whichever it is, financial investors seem to be betting on Big Tech further entrenching their emerging data monopolies.
Big Tech can only collect our data because there are few regulations in place to limit it; even something like Canada’s 2000 Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act is largely toothless and out-of-date. Big Tech can collect our data with near impunity. How come? It’s basically through contractual consent contained in terms and conditions policies that no-one reads — or understands — and yet signs when downloading the latest app. It’s important to stress that we have not decided collectively whether this pervasive data collection is OK or not.
Some people may think this is perfectly fine: let the market decide. But there are problems with this approach.
- First, we lose control over how our data can be used — terms and conditions policies let numerous third-parties pick over our data, for example. As a result, we cannot do anything about the digital reinforcement of social prejudices.
- Second, the scale of Big Tech is self-reinforcing in that it becomes increasingly difficult for competitors to challenge their control over our data. Some call this monopoly, and it is but of a different sort we’ve not seen before; it’s a monopoly of precision, rather than brute force. Unlike traditional monopoly, the point of data monopolies is to hone in on our actions and behaviours to work out what makes us tick in order to identify our “willingness to pay” — the goal is to find the precise price point at which we are willing to pay for everything.
- This means, finally, that traditional antitrust or anticompetitive litigation is unlikely to help, as it doesn’t address contemporary operations of market power.
Canada should look to the EU as an example of how to deal with these problems. The EU has taken the initiative to demand limits on the use of personal data by Big Tech. And I’m not just talking about the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation. Drafts of the EU’s proposed Digital Services Act indicate they are going to take a far tougher stance on Big Tech’s control of data in the future, with Margrethe Vestager — the executive vice president of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age — specifically targeting the opening up of Big Tech’s entrenched data monopolies.
What Canada needs is a clear accounting of Big Tech’s data holdings so that we can hold them to account on their monetization of our data. We need to limit data collection to single, specified, and time-limited purposes, excluding the diffusion of our data through third-party permissions. We need limits on unaccountable uses of algorithmic decision-making when it comes to living our lives. And we need digital platforms that are not simply extractive enclave marketplaces.
There is much else besides we could demand, and now is a great time to do so as Big Tech is on the back foot, for now.
Kean Birch is associate professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC) at York University, Graduate Program Director of the Science and Technology Studies (STS) Graduate Program, and Co-Editor of the Science & Technology Studies (STS) journal "Science as Culture". His research interest focuses on understanding technoscientific capitalism and draws on a range of perspectives from science and technology studies, economic geography, and economic sociology. More specifically, his research and writing deals with the restructuring and transformation of the economy and financial knowledges, technoscientific innovation, and the relationship between markets and natural environments. Currently, he is researching how different things (e.g. knowledge, personality, loyalty, etc.) are turned into assets and how economic rents are then captured from those assets. He recently co-edited a book on Assetization: Turning Things into Assets in Technoscientific Capitalism (2020). He recently published another article titled "Ottawa’s post-hoc privacy plan still leaves the power with Big Tech" (Globe and Mail, November 19, 2020). This article appeared in the October 2020 issue of Toronto Star.