As Georgetown University students, our daily interactions with technology span a wide array of products and companies. We use Facebook to keep tabs on friends, Google’s search engine for daily questions and Microsoft’s software for productivity purposes.
Yet, even with this interaction, we need to pause and ask ourselves how much control we are willing to give to a handful of companies. Individuals, businesses and policymakers alike are growing wary of how a select number of technology companies, especially Facebook, Google and Amazon, are deeply entrenched in the lives of people around the world. There are recent privacy and anti-competitive cases raised against Google and Facebook in Europe, and researchers are even discussing Amazon in monopolistic terms in the United States.
The control some technology companies like Facebook and Google exert should invite greater scrutiny in the hopes of defending consumer concerns, namely privacy, security and monopolistic behavior. As the companies grow and expand, we must demand greater transparency — especially when it comes to data collection — and openness if they make mistakes that negatively affect consumers.
In the past 10 years, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have swallowed up hundreds of companies worth billions of dollars. The iPhone, Apple’s only smartphone offering, controls nearly 45 percent of the total smartphone market in the United States. Google’s email client, Gmail, is used by about 1.2 billion out of 4.4 billion total email accounts, and Facebook holds nearly 2.2 billion active monthly users. In a different space, nearly 43 percent of all online sales in the United States were handled by Amazon, and, with the company valued at $356 billion, it is worth more than the next eight biggest brick-and-mortar retailers combined.
The statistics, while hardly all-encompassing, shed light on the power these companies have and should trouble even the most indifferent consumer. Recent developments should also help make the case that it is not out of the question that the government should require greater transparency in its operations and data collection and further investigate wrongdoing.
In recent weeks, the story of how one data-based consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, violated Facebook’s terms of service and improperly accessed data from nearly 50 million Facebook users illustrates an aspect of the current problem. Facebook had known the company obtained improper access since 2016, and while it moved to initially stop the company from using this data, the crux of the matter remains: Facebook made it too easy for developers to improperly access data, and Facebook failed to properly alert consumers about the breach until long after the fact.
Currently, there are reports that U.S. senators are calling on Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to testify about the company’s actions, while the Federal Trade Commission and British authorities are investigating Facebook’s practices. Such a response, while reactionary, is appropriate and perhaps what is needed for technology companies beyond Facebook. So much of what companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon do, what data they collect and how they address security breaches remains opaque.
Attempting to shed light on the activities of tech companies and hold them accountable does not extend only to Facebook. In September 2017, a European Union court fined Google 2.4 billion euros after ruling it illegally skewed search results and hampered consumer choice. Even more recently, Japanese regulatory authorities raided Amazon’s Japan offices over concerns that the Seattle-based retailer engaged in improper business practices with other sellers.
Ultimately, such events illustrate how large tech companies have the potential to cause harm, thus needing further inquiry and investigation. Governments and consumers must demand, at the very least, transparency of practices and openness in reporting flaws, leaks, hacks and other mistakes. Today’s negative publicity about Facebook, for example, could have been largely mitigated if the company had alerted consumers promptly and transparently. Instead, Facebook faces numerous government inquiries and one of the worst publicity crises since the firm’s inception.
The issues of Facebook, Google and other tech giants cannot be entirely mitigated. Rather, these recent incidents and overall expanding growth of these companies should galvanize calls for scrutiny. Perhaps we should require large tech companies to disclose what data they collect and how they do so, keeping in mind trade secrets. Partnerships with consumer watchdogs could also give consumers and governments some peace of mind knowing that their actions are watched to an extent.
In the end, as long as these companies continue to grow and expand their influence, there should be some common-sense approaches to protecting consumers. At the very least, we should be able to live our daily lives knowing which information we are willingly giving up, which we are not and what these companies are actually doing behind the curtain.
Humza Moinuddin is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Ones and Zeros appears online every other Wednesday.