Is Big Tech in Check? Rise of The Big Tech: Too Big to Handle

Today in the 21st century, we live in a world whose DNA is interwoven in technology, where internet and social media is shaping new behaviors, addiction being one of them.

Is Big Tech in Check? Rise of The Big Tech: Too Big to Handle

Talking about addiction, it is interesting to note that the British introduced our nation to tea. They did so to cease the monopoly of China in tea exports. Hence, a need and addiction were created by the colonial power for economic gains.

Today, is history repeating itself, where big tech companies are sowing the seeds of needs only to harvest our addiction to it instead? Where a situation has been created that neither individuals nor nations can live without aide of these tech companies, where they have started to act like nation states in themselves.

How these companies have acquired power in various spheres? How they managed to absorb both the government and the citizens into them and create a monopoly? Have these few companies colonized our minds? Will they, in the near future, shape the world order? Let's try to analyze some of these questions in this blog.

Rise of The Big Tech: Too Big to Handle

India aspires to become a $5 trillion economy, which may not be evident soon, given the current economic conditions of the nation. But the 4-5 big tech companies we talk about here, presently account for a worth more than what India aspires to achieve.

Let’s look at some statistics. Apple controls around 25% smartphone market worldwide and 50% in the U.S. Both Apple and Google provide OS for almost 99% mobile devices. Google and Microsoft have monopoly on search engines. Amazon has a worldwide monopoly on e-commerce. Amazon and Microsoft are the top two companies providing cloud servicing, to national governments as well. And when we come to social media, it’s an invincible monopoly by Facebook after acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp.

This is the reason these few companies, worth trillions, are described to be too big to handle. Broadly and briefly, these companies became powerful in three spheres. First and the obvious one is economic power, which they gained primarily from advertising, connecting the seller and buyer across the globe. Next is the technological sphere, which they hold because of their algorithms. Through these they can control everything from individual minds to political processes. Third is the political sphere, where political and media lobbying is the tool these tech giants use to influence political decisions and maintain positive relations with the media.

To What Extent Can They Go?

Microsoft identified a cybersecurity threat on Ukraine from the Russian side on Feb 24. The company made efforts to nullify the attack and went a step ahead to ban advertisements from Russia Today and Sputnik across its ad network and blocked access to both channels in Europe.

Following the steps of Microsoft, other big tech companies that announced sanctions on Russia, as if they were nation states, were Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. By the 2nd week of March, all the restrictions of these 5 big tech companies were on place and the world for the first time witnessed how corporations, to a certain extent, can paralyze the economy and communication of a country.

Restrictions on the use of Google and Apple Pay, ban on advertisements, demonetization of YouTube channels, restricting Russian state media’s access to Facebook were some of the sanctions which Russian government and public had to face. Amazon went the other way and instead of sanctions on Russia, it offered humanitarian relief to Ukrainians with cash donations, logistical support and cyber-security assistance.

How They Control Us: The Race for Attention

“Today a handful of people, working in a few technology companies have the power to steer what a billion people will think”, said Tristan Harris, during his TED talk. He’s a former design ethicist at Google, this job profile basically means studying and planning how to ethically steer people’s thoughts.

These companies get the data of every click and then we are served with the content that matches our requirements and preferences. The content that we watch, without actually intending to, controls the way we think and react. You search or talk with your friend about cars and immediately automobile advertisements start popping on your screen, YouTube recommends and auto plays the next video and you can’t resist the temptation to watch it, Facebook auto plays all the videos on your newsfeed, Netflix auto plays the next episode and you decide to sacrifice some amount of your sleep and shift that attention to the platform.

So, basically these tech giants are trying to stay with us from the moment we wake up till we go to bed. Our attention is what they need, and they sell this attention to the advertisers to earn their revenue. Today, we can be controlled and manipulated with one single power – content, which the big tech makes sure we watch and benefit advertisers.

Moreover, the content that is served to us has no filter, platforms cannot authenticate it but can only give us recommendations, and this becomes one of the most dangerous issues. Many institutions run propaganda-based, outrageous and violent content. The primary reason big tech doesn’t cease this content because hateful content garners most views and eventually more revenue. Elections were manipulated through social media, conspiracy theories were spread, fearmongering was done and all this is creating a new world problem.

All these issues clearly suggest that giving so much power to a few companies that have the data of each and every individual from around the world can cause massive destruction of democracy. For example, Microsoft can dictate the communication structure of millions of people by just tweaking the features of their communication platforms MS Teams. It’s their choice whether they want to make the platform democratic or tyrannical and users have no option but to adhere to their choices.

So, tomorrow if the big tech dominates the world order by data and algorithms, then the socio-cultural and political inclinations and influences of the people who create these algorithms, will shape the ‘upcoming society’ - a new colonial society of the big tech.

Anti-Trust: Restricting Big Tech

In 2022, we witnessed developed countries like U.S. and the European Union drafting laws that restrict big tech companies from exercising all the unfair liberty. The new legislation of E.U., which is yet to become a law includes restrictions on gathering user data for the purpose of placing targeted ads, prohibition from forcing users to set their products such as web browsers as the default option means you cannot promote your own products and they should also make sure their products and services have “interoperability” with their competitors’ offerings.

The U.S. is keen on imposing these types of restrictions and on top of these, U.S. legislators also suggest a breakup of the big companies to cease their monopoly. A similar ruling for breaking up Microsoft was given by a U.S. court which eventually didn’t happen.

Both the U.S. and E.U. has data protection law, hence they are able to march forward with additional measures to curb big tech. But India is pretty behind in the parade and in a vulnerable position compared to the developed nations as the country lacks a data privacy law. A Personal Data Protection Bill was introduced in the Parliament in 2019. Last December, the bill got approved by the Joint Parliamentary Committee, but still has to be passed by the houses.

Rise of Metaverse

Facebook has been one company that is all out towards building a metaverse, now that they are even rebranded as “Meta”, its founder Mark Zuckerberg described the metaverse as ‘embodied internet’. Today, our social media is largely owned by a single company, Facebook/Meta. Such a monopoly makes it easier for Facebook to take it a step forward.

Although metaverse is supposed to be thought of as a free medium but would still need some sort of governance, which is at power with the advancements of the metaverse as a medium. The bigger question here becomes if that governance will be democratic or not.

If a single tech giant such as Meta is able to lay the ground works of a medium like the metaverse, it would automatically be subject to its governance. Meta, the company might become a decision maker, rather than its users, which the company has already shown glimpses of in the past. Meta would be able to decide who we interact with, what we buy, how much time we spend in the metaverse and much more. Since it would not be liable to any country’s government, not even the country the company is from.

Keiza MacDonald of The Guardian stated, that they would be more positive towards metaverse development if it was not dominated by companies trying to figure out a way to make more money, through targeted advertising in a virtual universe, as the real world's resources are dwindling.

Like many high-end fashion brands, Balenciaga has also ventured into the metaverse and near the end of 2021 was the first to take on Fortnite. Players of the open-world video game could purchase digital outfits inspired by real-life Balenciaga pieces from its virtual boutique. Qatar Airways too entered the metaverse by launching QVerse, a novel virtual reality experience for visitors to the airline’s website.

Indian companies for instance, Infosys has also recently launched Metaverse Foundry, and has already developed over 100 use cases and templates. Salil Parekh, CEO of Infosys, said they are already in active discussions with several clients to see how they can use it.

There are two ways of looking at what the future beholds. One is where we imagine a Utopian society where we have gotten so better that it’s close to perfect and we do not carry the problems of the current world. On the other hand, we also doubt of an absolute counter to that, a dystopian future, as mentioned by Neal Stephenson in his book ‘Snow Crash’, where societies have become more hierarchical than ever, where technology has taken us over, where life as we know it today has absolutely changed into being super organized and controlled by a few people and where even freedom is automated.

It looks like we’re steering more towards the latter, even though both are hypothetical extremes and there might never be a perfect equal world. To make reality a better place and not just virtual reality, we need to find a balance, we need to be more aware as a society and question things and not pose a blind eye to the current situation because it will shape our future.

The Leash Must Be Pulled

There was a time when big tech was seen as a tool of democratic progress, now it has become a threat to democracy. The now revoked Nevada (U.S.) legislation of 2021, which gave local government powers to big tech companies, was seen as a dangerous alarm for the world showing the dangerous growth and political might of these big tech companies.

If they are not controlled and brought under strict legislation by all the nation states immediately then the situation may get worsen. The countries must regulate big tech companies by bringing in privacy laws, cloud storage and management laws, laws on acquisition of small companies by the big ones, strict taxation laws without loopholes, and most importantly governments must encourage and support local tech companies so that consumers have a trustworthy alternative and no monopoly is created.

A few developed nations are acting as front-runners but all other nations must join in before the catastrophe on democracy befalls. Moreover, it’s also the responsibility of the professionals working in these big tech companies to have a realization that they have created a Frankenstein monster whose detrimental effects is being borne by the society they live in.

We cannot let ourselves turn into technical zombies, only to be controlled by big tech!

Pratik Deka,
Content Writer,

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