Lawmakers Declare War on the Big 5 Tech Companies
Each time one of the major tech giants makes the news for a new abuse at the expense of user security, governments react by holding hearings and making threats. The EU has even instituted new regulations in order to protect user data and hold companies accountable for continued breaches and leaks. This protection extends to users in all countries if the websites they access also have a global reach.
Israeli companies that aren’t in compliance yet should do so quickly, as the fines, which can be formidable, are in full effect.
Facebook has already stated that they won’t fully comply with this regulation outside of the European sphere. Consumers would do well to remember that, at least for Facebook, you’re not the customer, you’re their product; Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he has no intention of changing that particular business model. So far, Apple and Microsoft have decided to make the new GDPR guidelines global.
What does the GDPR do?
It limits the amount of data companies can collect, controls what they can do with it afterwards, and hits tech companies and websites owners with stiff penalties when they abuse consumer trust. This is not just limited to European versions of popular social media and eCommerce platforms. It also covers any website that collects data on European citizens, regardless of their physical location, or does business with European companies.
That’s why you’ll find updated privacy information on nearly any website you visit that doesn’t have a strictly local online presence. This is one way that governments have found to make a “borderless” internet subject to the limitations placed on borders in the real world.
Some tech companies responded to accusations and complaints by stepping up their game with advanced security technology and attempts at transparency. However, lawmakers in various countries, with Canada leading the way, are giving serious consideration to taking a run at breaking up the Big 5 – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook – in an effort to curtail abuses.
A History of Anti-Trust
This isn’t the first time that these companies have faced scrutiny from lawmakers. Back in the 90s, Microsoft was accused of antitrust activities for forcing PC manufacturers to bundle their OS with every new, non-Mac computer. CEOs or representatives from each of the five tech giants have found themselves under scrutiny in headlines and government hearing rooms over the past several years.
Would breaking up tech companies that are considered “too big” work, or is it another futile exercise in government overreach?
Politicians Weigh In
At a hearing in May, the Canadian House of Commons hosted an international panel of lawmakers from 12 other countries to discuss everything from antitrust violations to consumer privacy protection. The panel complained up front that none of the companies took the inquiry seriously by noting that the majority of CEOs sent low-level representatives rather than appearing themselves to answer questions.
The companies that were subpoenaed answered many of the charges by replying that none of the proposed charges could be solved with the far-reaching new GDPR regulations or any future laws. For example, Apple’s rep responded to accusations that it didn’t care about its customer base after pulling the Facebook messenger app from its Apple Store by pointing out the iPhone users could still access the social media platform through their mobile web browsers.
The companies feel that their opt-in/opt-out method of data collection is adequate, while lawmakers take the stance that privacy should be the default position, not an option.
Most of the tech companies subpoenaed to the hearing objected to any talks about the problem of monopolising certain services when the purported purpose of the hearing was to discuss security and privacy concerns. The bottom line stance from all of the tech companies represented at the hearing: we’ll be far more effective at self-policing than anything you propose in an effort to reign us in.
Another hearing is scheduled in Ireland to continue the debate in November.
Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands
If we can’t trust the companies to act in our best interests, and we don’t want to rely on knee-jerk government intrusion, consumers may have to take privacy into their own hands.
Israeli users can also turn to technology for privacy protection. Every network, whether it’s for business or personal use, should be protected by virtual private networks, firewalls, and the latest security apps and software. Make sure that your routers are set up using one of the best VPNs, and that they have the most recent firmware versions installed and updated upon release. Make backups of all sensitive data, find out what companies access, what they do with it, and how it’s protected from their end.
The first step is to fully read all TOS and user agreements before accessing any online or tech-related company. If you don’t feel comfortable about what the TOS states, or you just don’t understand all of what you’re reading, opt out.
You can also refuse to install any app or platform that requests access to information or features beyond what’s needed for functionality. For example, Facebook’s excuse for needing access to contact lists, cameras, video, and other in-phone features is to facilitate photo sharing. Does it, really?
If you don’t want them having such information, don’t install the app. There are literally hundreds of messaging systems that don’t require such access. You don’t like the iPhone’s market dominance? Don’t line up to buy the next gen phone. Or use other shipping platforms rather then going through Amazon.
The Case Against Government Oversight
While it is galling to see companies with billion-plus dollar revenues engage in practices that make it difficult for SMBs and startups to compete, government interference might not be the answer. One need only look at what happened when the same antitrust regulations were placed on phone services in the 80s and banking in the 90s to see that regulations meant to encourage competitiveness don’t work. They usually just result in an epidemic of mergers, buyouts, and bankruptcies.
Besides, the nature of cyberspace and technology makes such proposals unrealistic. It’s a 20th century response to a 21st century problem. Would forcing Amazon to give up Whole Foods really make any difference when their market share of the food industry is only a fraction of their overall revenue streams? Would making Facebook sell Instagram bring back MySpace or simply create another monopoly among photo-sharing platforms?
In order for government regulations to make sense, they have to actually solve the problems they pretend to address. Besides, these aren’t one company. They’re five separate entities all engaged in different aspects of technological commerce.
Security should be the concern of every online platform, but treating cyber communities like real-world monopolies is not a solution. Not only does it fail to address the underlying issue of transparency and data protection, it doesn’t encourage innovation, competitiveness, or solve any of the other alleged problems that governing bodies purport to address. It doesn’t even do much to protect consumers.
Education and collectively holding service providers or online platforms accountable is a good place to start to make a difference.