Lisa Benson, 2019, Tribune-Star "Editorial Cartoon: Big Tech"
The growing power and influence of Big Tech organizations has always maintained a foreboding presence, but mostly in the background. For the sake of “progress”, organizations such as Alphabet, Meta, Apple, Amazon, etc. have been able to get away with numerous human rights abuses, especially in the cyber domain. While cases of accountability have always been brushed underneath the rug, today thirty civil society organizations have called on the United States Congress to take action against Big Tech’s immense concentration of power.
While this is nothing new, the bills proposed could make a productive impact on the way that U.S. tech corporations irresponsibly handle user data. According to cybernews.com, the acts themselves (including the American Innovation Act, the Choice Online Act, and Open App Markets Act) are generally designed to “hold US corporations like Alphabet, Meta, Apple, and Amazon accountable for ‘failing to keep people safe online, and put an end to their reign of data abuse and surveillance’”. (Read about the acts here).
In response to the amount of personal access we give Big Tech companies, some may reply “so what?”. In truth, the average citizen may not think about their privacy as much because we have become so conditioned to live without it. At the end of the day, people will never fully boycott the Big Five (generally known as Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, and Microsoft) or throw their phones in the microwave for fear of listening government operatives (A.K.A “Snowden Syndrome”). However, people should be more concerned about their privacy. We as individuals, need to be asking “why” more:
“Why does Twitter need to know what Operating System and what kind of device I’m using to post a tweet?”
“Why does Facebook need to use my photos for its AI facial recognition training?”
“Why does an app need to use location sharing, where I tell people I don’t even know where I am, what I’m doing, potentially at all times of the day, 24/7?”
Just like an over-protective and over-bearing “helicopter parent”, Big Tech companies always have their excuses ready:
“Twitter needs that information to protect you in case someone hacks into your account from another device or OS.”
“Facebook needs your photos to protect you in case someone else wrongfully posts a photo of you; avoid identity theft!”
*Any excuse for location tracking appears weak in comparison to the extreme invasiveness of its measures.
Fear Is A Method Of Control
Chip Bok, 2021 Creators Syndicate, The Week Political Cartoon
As you may have noticed, the common theme in Big Tech’s methods of persuasion is fear. They will scare the individual into handing over their rights to privacy in exchange for the acceptance that citizens are no longer able to be trusted. We have all been resigned to the role of criminals who need to be constantly marked, watched, scanned, and tracked like cattle. We have all become an international data harvest (always giving yet never receiving) instead of the human beings we actually are. And despite the ridiculousness of this unfair treatment, we as citizens, have actually come to believe that we do not deserve to be trusted to manage our own lives. Human rights appears to have little in relation to Big Tech. However, Big Tech’s “subtle” attitude of controlling users (usually in the form of data collection and surveillance) allows such companies to do whatever they please and with terrifying consequence.
Big Tech Human Rights Abuses:
Limiting Freedom of Speech
A.F. Branco Political Cartoon, legalinsurrection.com
Human Rights Watch reports Facebook and Instagram of encroaching on the First Amendment (freedom of speech) by removing content they deemed “inappropriate” for the platform. Regardless of whether this content takes the ugly form of “hate speech” or “terrorist extremism”, it has also been hypocritically aimed against groups that are deemed unfavorable by the social media giants.
Overcensoring those with unpopular opinions, whether it be in satire, journalism, or any comment in text, has now become an invasion of the human right to speak one’s mind. Clint Watts, an expert in Cybersecurity and a highly talented disinformation analyst, outlines the extensive outreach of social media giants in his fantastic book, “Messing With The Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News”. Not only does Watts expose how much data is being collected from the public by Big Tech, but he also demonstrates the extreme impacts of using such data to influence public decision-making (especially key during the 2016 U.S. presidential election).
A.F. Branco, "Big Tech Lies Matter", 2022 EYT Media Group Inc.
Failure To Protect Users From Illegal Activity
Another aspect of Big Tech’s human rights violations is their inability to protect users from dangerous parties that also share the platforms (such as sex offenders, human traffickers, drug trafficking, etc.). It is an extreme irony that companies such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are willing to ban hate-speech or “offensive” content yet do little to prevent the unspeakable crimes being committed against their own users. Many of these platforms have served as easy and convenient vessels for illegal activity to be performed, such as Facebook’s numerous cases of failing to remove child pornography and trafficking content. (The Guardian reports "Over 300 cases of child exploitation went unnoticed by Facebook- study").
While there are now more standards and policies in-place to deal with illegal activity, the reality is that often times, these standards are simply neglected. So the one thing that big-tech companies should be monitoring more closely, they do not. In further outrage, there are numerous cases of users taking legal action against Big Tech companies for allowing such abuses to take place, yet they repeatedly lose to “liability” arguments. Even if Facebook is not 100% liable for child pornography being posted on its platform, it still fosters the responsibility to protect its users against exploitation. In other words, it is not your fault if a fire randomly breaks out in your home. However, it is your responsibility -as a good parent- to not leave your child in the fire. (If your child tries to sue you for endangering them, you would probably lose).
Privacy and Surveillance Abuses
Clay Jones, 2017, The Week Political Cartoon
An obvious abuse is Big Tech's invasion of basic user privacy and security. With the long and dramatic history of cyber breaches, everyone should know by now that trusting your data to Big Tech companies will eventually see it compromised at some point in the future. Some may call this perspective “pessimistic”, but it is simply a fact. In the cyber industry, it is security rule #1 to “assume you have already been hacked”. However, with each big data breach, we see a shocking amount of personal data that Big Tech companies collect and how that data is being used to impact our personal lives.
Amnesty International reports that Facebook and Google’s constant surveillance of users “poses an unprecedented danger to human rights”, mainly in the form of “covered up” user agreements. Just because a user checked a box for a digital contract that they merely skimmed over doesn’t mean that their personal lives can be used for any shady thing a tech company wants to do. As a user, I assume the surface benefits of using Facebook when I sign-up, but I do not consent myself to testing exploitive algorithms, teaching Artificial Intelligence for unknown purposes, and creating linked accounts in my name for apps that I didn’t even know existed! (All true instances). Not only is that a highly invasive practice, it is extraordinarily deceitful in its nature, and these big-tech companies know it.
Phil Hands, 2019 The Week Political Cartoon
For too long, the Big Five have been allowed to play dirty in order to make a profit and manipulate consumers. Not much has been done to limit the monopoly power of these companies. In fact, the multiple violations of antitrust laws have only increased their predatory business practices and aggressive measures. Just like Microsoft, who is notorious for snuffing out competition (poor Netscape) and expanding their circle of influence (a highly lucrative portfolio including Mojang, Github, Skype technologies, LinkedIn, just to name a few), Big Tech companies are encouraged to control more. This is the modern day Berlin Conference of 1885. Big Tech companies are absorbing more territory to control more users. While this is painted as “technological progress”, advocacy groups are right to condemn Big Tech for their suffocating treatment of human rights.
Overall, we must realize that Big Tech organizations are not always “our friend”. The dynamic between the user and their technology is not the equal partnership that companies like Meta, Amazon, Apple, and Alphabet love to promote. It is rather a battle between David (the user) and Goliath (Big Tech). With this in mind, users should consider which parts of their life they would rather keep private. Ask yourself how much information-sharing you are fully prepared to do instead of just signing everything away willy-nilly. Despite what society campaigns, we do not need to have everything out in the open in order to be accepted (if anything, that mindset is a security disaster). Therefore, cherish your data as you cherish yourself. The right to privacy begins with seeing ourselves as unique human beings and not the “one-of-many” like Big Tech companies do. In regards to Big Tech, humanity deserves its respect, not to be at its mercy.