23. Resisting the Big Tech takeover

You are being monitored right now, and as if connected by an invisible blood transfusion, are constantly empowering the already powerful. This essay reflects on the main problems that come with the Big Tech’s hostile takeover of society, and claims that only decisive collective action can counter this.

One of the under-discussed consequences of the Covid19 Pandemic is the consolidation of the dominant position of Big Tech in our globalized world. One only has to glance as the stock market to realize these are golden times for the mega-conglomerates (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) that control our digital life. Changes that might otherwise take years to complete, whether it regards outsourcing to artificial intelligence or adopting certain platforms, are now rushed through overnight. While global GDP falls, governments worldwide scramble for resources and millions (soon billions) are rendered vulnerable, the billionaire class is increasing its lead and score a decisive victory over small and local businesses. The latter either fade or are forced to accept the patronage of companies like Amazon to survive. In this text, I will first focus on two main concerns: the eradication of privacy through datamining, and the neo-feudalist work relations in the digital economy. Afterwards, I will argue that only collective action can and must defend us from such dangers, which will be illustrated by two proposals.

The first issue concerns privacy and data mining. For those who are not already aware: virtually every ‘smart’ device you own (or are near to) is constantly gathering data on you, either through its default functioning or apps you installed. This is not limited to your phone (which literally does listen to you), your laptop, but also any smart house system that uses voice recognition and – if you give permission – even unsuspicious devices like printers and game consoles track data. This data, for example of your location, is consequentially either processed by those apps, and/or sold to third parties. This often goes beyond information you explicitly provide (such as search terms in a search engine), as apps log data outside their own core functions, for example Facebook tracking what you do on other websites open at the same time.

    So what, you got nothing to hide? Before we even get into the argument of why, it must be pointed out that the violation of your privacy in itself and regardless of consequences is still a violation of privacy. In the real world, such a thing can only be done if it serves a clear societal interest, such as solving a murder or busting tax dodgers. You do not need an argument to feel disturbed by these violations. Yet since I’m in the business of arguing things, let us go over a small portion of reasons why you might care.

    First of all, there might be things you do want to hide. I’m not just talking about the fact that you watch porn, but also for example medical or financial information. There is something fundamentally awkward about getting advertisements about psychological help after talking to your brother about his depression. You might also be confronted with things you hate, for example mentioning you are scared of sharks might trigger shark-related content.

   Furthermore, we should be aware that this data is compiled, and companies are reconstructing digital copies of yourself – and selling those. This allows companies to manipulate you to an unprecedented extend given their remember more about you than you do. While on the level on an individual add this might not disturb you, if we add up all the millions of conscious and unconscious behavioral suggestions over a lifetime, this does encroach on your autonomy, and that of your children.  

   Most of you would become hysterical if even 5% of the data that Big Tech has about you was known by the state. As a Marxist, I don’t suffer the delusion that companies would not turn against me, but for those who do, it might be useful to point out that there is no clear separation with politics. I am not just talking about explicit digital spying by intelligence agencies, but also the use of your data by the political actors that occupy the State. The use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica to manipulate elections in U.S. and Mexico is a clear example. In the case of some Chinese or Russian apps, the line between company and state is very thin, as the recent commotion surrounding Tik Tok’s spyware shows.

    Lastly, the point that personally worries me most is that all this data is used to train artificial intelligence. When A.I. in your email predicts your words, it is advising you as much as you are teaching the A.I. Information such as location data, choices, responses, habits, etc. are fed to the machine so it can better predict and mimic us. Both serve the eventual goal of replacing human labor by robots in all corners of the economy, a massive societal problem on which I have written repeatedly.

It is in this economy that our second main challenge arises: the rapid comeback of feudal economic relations. Feudalism is a medieval economic system in which means of production (in that time land) are leased to producers in exchange for services and a share of the product. The feudal ‘lords’ don’t produce anything themselves, but leech of the work of their subjects. Many of the breakthrough tech companies of the last decades have a strikingly similar business model. In some case they literally lease means of production, such as licensing for Microsoft Office, but in many cases what they lease is access to the market itself. Services like Amazon, Uber and AirBnB essentially allow others to connect to clients in exchange for parts of the profit (and data, of course). In some cases, such as that of Youtube, the money is made behind our back and we are given a part of it.

   From a theoretical point of view, it poses an interesting question to classical economics about what happens to the free market is the market itself becomes privatized. In practical terms, at least two big problems follow from this. First, just like in real Feudalism, it allows for concentration of wealth in the hands of a non-productive class. Small producers in essence pay taxes to foreign Big Tech in addition to (or instead of) the government. As various commentators have pointed out, inequality grows as this sector collects rent from society without themselves generating economic activity. As if normal capitalist exploitation isn’t enough, now we are having our value leeched by companies we don’t even work for!

   The last remark forms a problem in and of itself. With the rise of the ‘gig economy’, an increasing amount of workers are turned into fake-independents. This is the clearest in the case of Uber drivers: while they in all practical sense work for Uber (Uber extracts their value), they legally don’t and thus don’t build social security rights such as healthcare or pensions. While this is problematic in any country, it is particularly painful in Mexico where normal companies often don’t even contract their workers. This fake independence impacts society in so far it serves to: a) create vulnerability; b) falsify competition versus normal companies; and c) dodges taxes.

So what is to be done? Let us start by discussing the form of resistance. One could argue that we should individually tackle this problem as consumers or producers by resisting such companies. While I encourage any reader to share their personal alternatives, there are important limits to such an individual approach. To start with, these services typically sell us access to other people (clients or acquaintances), and thus one cannot just (successfully) decide this alone. Additionally, such resistance requires a very high level of technological and legal literacy, which might be unrealistic to expect from most people.

    This inequality in information is also exploited by the fact that Big Tech legalizes their actions through either Terms & Agreements (a euphemism for traps) and loopholes in the law. Users typically need to accept all these terms at once, and this aren’t given the space to resist in the rare case they would understand what is happening. To further demonstrate the emptiness of this legalistic approach, such terms and agreements often include waivers against class action lawsuits. All of this is of course on the premise that we can trust big corporations to be honest in the first place.

In what remains, I will argue that these challenges are best met through collective action in the form of direct and assertive state intervention. The need for collective action partly follows from the relative powerlessness and ignorance of individuals, similar to how regulation saves me from poisoning as I cannot understand all chemicals on a food package. Yet it also comes from the nature of the issue. Much of what Big Tech monetizes and surveils are essentially commons (markets, the internet) or could as well be user or producer driven commons (Youtube), and thus invite collective governance. This is underlined by the fact that many of these services are obtaining a quasi-public character in terms of importance to the functioning of society, much in the way education and water do. What we need is both aggressive regulation and redistribution of the content of these commons. I will illustrate both lanes with an example.

Regarding regulation, we would need far more aggressive and direct intervention in privacy rights. Starting with an outright ban on recording sound, video of screen information from smart devices for commercial purposes. It is problematic enough that application compile and sell information we explicitly enter, yet there is simply no convincing reason why they must spy on us outside of our direct interaction with them. Or does anybody wants to attempt the ludicrous defense that capitalism cannot function without secret recording of consumers? Since companies could as well not do this, I see no reason to hold back on aggressive monitoring and enforcement of such demands. This proposal would have widespread popular support, but regulations of this type seem to be hindered by in the best case technological ignorance amongst (typically older) politicians, in the worst case the influence of economic elites.

    In terms of redistribution, I propose there are various Big Tech fields that could easily be nationalized and/or replaced by public alternatives. For example Uber. While original at the time, Uber in itself is a fairly simply technology: it’s an interface that matches GPS data with client interaction. While rates are variable and obscure, Uber will take anywhere between 25% and 50% of the amount paid by the client. While this crazy number is not an exceptional ‘rate of exploitation’ within normal capitalism, we must remember that the driver doesn’t actually work for Uber! In other words, our society is missing out on vast amounts of wealth that are taxed away to some U.S. corporation. Rather than going to the drama of nationalizing Uber, I propose to replace it with a similar system operated by local city governments. Given one initial (now obsolete) argument for Uber was security, placing this service in the hands of local governments (for example protection civil) can perfectly provide for a similar service. The entire service could be financed via a low flat tax rate, allowing the drivers to keep the vast majority of their income.  

These are just two examples. Systems like Wikipedia show that many more things could be ran as commons (looking at you, Youtube!), whether directly by citizens or via state intervention. It is time a for bold and decisive collection action against the neo-feudal takeover of Big Tech. One last thing: let us once and forever stop saying things like ‘it’s becoming like 1984’: this reality is already here and far exceeds this primitive science-fiction.