It’s not a secret (well, not anymore) that the big tech companies have influence. These companies, that include Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, have been in the spotlight more and more as the argument of data privacy has gotten louder and louder. Public sentiment is starting to blow back on their business model--and since, Yahoo, once the predominant name in Internet-based services, was broken up and sold to Verizon for cents on the dollar after being at the center of the largest data breach in recorded history--there have been rumblings that there has to be something done to protect the public from major publicly-traded technology companies that use individual’s data in ways that some deem unethical.
What is often referred to as the “Big Four” (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google)--and sometimes referred to as the “Big Five” (adding in Microsoft or Netflix, but somehow never both)--are some of the most lucrative and successful companies in world history. Their influence is pervasive in our society. As a result of their enormous reach, economists began to argue that Big Tech has gotten too big and needs to be reined in.
It’s only been in the past 18 months that politicians have started to listen. In an intriguing OPED in the New York Times Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook--who has moved on to other things--suggested it was time to break up the social media giant because it gave Mark Zuckerburg and the other decision makers at Facebook far too much power. He is not the only voice suggesting something has to be done either. Harvard economist and former IMF chief, Kenneth Rogoff, who writes at length of Big Tech’s ability to stymie competition by buying out even indirect competitors, also believes that Big Tech needs oversight.
In the summer of 2019, it finally came to a head, and the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice began investigations to determine if these major companies are operating on an even playing field. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings to see if these tech companies were killing off smaller competition before there was a market. Facebook alone owns social media giants Instagram and WhatsApp, leaving regulators skeptical whether these organizations were playing the same game as their competitors.
So how do these huge corporations use their data? The same way many businesses do, but since they have access to so much data, the applications it fuels is far and away larger and more in depth than anything most companies can accomplish. We are talking about literally billions of people accessing these interfaces every day. For the millions of people that search Google every hour, the millions on Facebook, the millions watching YouTube, all of their actions create a user profile. When used, it provides users a very personalized experience. How many times have you seen ads in the sidebar that meet something you just searched for recently? How many times have you been suggested to see some media that matches what you typically watch?
What benefit would a business have from mining all this data? Why would there be a push from regulators and the public to break apart these entities; or, at the very least, give users more control over their own data? The answer is pretty easy to see. These organizations, despite a perceived lack of competition, and continual regulatory acts to stymie it, do present a great deal of value to consumers. I mean how much would you get done without Google Search? Would Google Search still be a viable product if Google didn’t mine and use all of a user’s data to make it so? These are interesting questions that won’t be answered any time soon. One thing that is certain, however, is that there are many people who are starting to question whether these organizations have grown too big to challenge, making a faceoff with regulators almost inevitable.
Who do you trust more? The big four (plus Microsoft and Netflix) or the government officials looking to keep these companies from becoming monopolies? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.