The Continuing Pressure Against Big Tech

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

December 31, 2021

The pandemic-led lockdowns dealt a severe blow to brick-and-mortar businesses. Economies globally were deeply impacted, leading to corresponding increases in unemployment levels. But amid the downturn in physical businesses, technology companies registered extraordinary growth.

Tech companies and their offerings have become an indispensable part of daily lives. And their terms of usage require users to share personal information. With vast data sets at their disposal, tech giants wield considerable power. In fact, high-tech firms have caused their own worries by being so successful.

Populations worldwide use their products and they have become mega-rich. More such tech firms will follow. And then, will we eventually react against their usage of our data in their analyses? How can we overcome distrust in big-data analyses, in the US and elsewhere?

Horasis is organizing the Horasis USA Meeting on 04 March 2022 to examine and evaluate such issues. The one-day virtual event will see participation from a diverse range of people, spanning members of governments, businesses, academia, and the media. The goal is to deliberate on pressing issues that undermine progress and arrive at actionable solutions that can ensure shared prosperity.

Technology Giants at a Glance

Several of the largest technology giants registered phenomenal growth over the past two years. With remote learning and work becoming the norm, users worldwide were all the more dependent on devices and data. Apple, for example, posted a record profit of US$28.7 billion in Q3 2020. This was largely on the back of 5G enabled phone sales. Microsoft too saw an enormous increase in its bottom line; revenues totaled US$143 billion in 2020. And similar was the case at Alphabet and Amazon too. 

Tech companies also have personal information for billions of users. There is no doubt that such data is used to streamline and personalize the user experience. But at the same time, there is the possibility of this information being compromised. Incidents of data leaks are not uncommon.

In April 2021, personal data belonging to 530 million users from 106 countries was published on a public database. This information was secured during a data breach, earlier in 2019. The one saving grace was the fact that users’ financial information was not made available. The social media giant was taken to task for its inability to safeguard user privacy. Eventually, it reached a US$5 billion settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission. But this was far from being an isolated incident.

In October 2021, there was a temporary global outage of Facebook owned companies. This time around, personal data belonging to 1.5 billion users—or about half of all Facebook users—was listed for sale on hacker forums.

Can the Distrust be Overcome?

Trust is a core tenet of civilization. It is trust that brings humans together, and this aspect underpins all decision making. It is with trust that users sign up onto a social media platform. But with a fair share of data breaches occurring, the trust quotient is currently low. And the signs are telling.

According to a recent account, Facebook’s investors are concerned over the fact that US teens were spending less time on the social media platform – representing a 16% drop year-on-year. An earlier common trend was for users to own a Facebook account by the time they were 19 or so. It is currently only around 24-25 years of age when users might, if at all, choose to have a presence on Meta’s flagship platform.

The company did acknowledge a “trust deficit”. It has shown willingness to take measures to strengthen trust across its platforms. One key aspect that is mentioned in unison with trust is transparency. This facet is viewed as a “building block” to trust.

In simple terms, greater transparency builds higher levels of trust. For technology companies, this means sharing details of how exactly they collect and use customer data. Amid this scenario, it is imperative for regulatory agencies, technology companies, and representatives of consumer groups to deliberate and arrive at solutions that promote transparency and safeguard user privacy.

Going Forward

Governments and tech companies have come to a head on several occasions. Both Google and Facebook faced anti-trust lawsuits in the US. The Trump administration also levelled espionage allegations against TikTok’s parent Bytedance. Governments in India and South Korea too have taken tech companies to court.

Certain quarters, meanwhile, have espoused the idea of breaking up technology conglomerates into smaller entities. However, this may not necessarily bode well over the long term. Tech companies, on their part, have also been key in ushering in major socioeconomic upliftment across the world. While their misgivings have grabbed the limelight, and trust and transparency have been major bones of contention, a balanced approach must be adopted. Only then can mutually beneficial outcomes be achieved.

Photo Caption: Increasingly, people are apprehensive about how their data is being used by big tech firms.