The surveillance states that we historically have been warned about are ones operated by, well, the state — an overreaching government that wants to keep tabs on its citizens' every move. The surveillance state that we've ended up with in our shared dystopian future certainly has its fair share of government-sponsored snooping, but the most prominent invaders of privacy are corporations that have talked us into surrendering incredible amounts of personal information in exchange for convenient services. Human rights organization Amnesty International believes that trade-off is unsustainable. In a new report, Amnesty International called big tech surveillance "an unprecedented danger to human rights" and urged companies like Facebook and Google to change their business model to be less reliant on data.
The way that Amnesty International sees it, the internet is a necessary tool, both for the developed and developing world. But that tool has almost entirely fallen into the control of just five companies: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. In most cases, Amnesty International warns, these profit-driven companies cannot be trusted to put the best interests of people before their own bottom lines. That is especially true when it comes to companies like Facebook and Google that collect data every time you use one of their "free" services. According to Amnesty International, that business model is "inherently incompatible" with the right to privacy that all people should enjoy. The fact that these few tech giants also own many of the channels of expression online also raises the potential for censorship and stifling of speech, leaving internet citizens with next to no viable alternatives to turn to that doesn't take them through the big five companies that dominate the web.
“Google and Facebook dominate our modern lives – amassing unparalleled power over the digital world by harvesting and monetizing the personal data of billions of people. Their insidious control of our digital lives undermines the very essence of privacy and is one of the defining human rights challenges of our era,” Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Facebook dominates social media
Amnesty International is right that most of our online lives go through just a few companies. Some of the most trafficked sites and services online all fall under just a handful of corporate umbrellas. Facebook is still wildly popular all on its own, racking up 1.56 billion daily active users, but it's the services that the company owns that make it entirely unavoidable. Instagram passed one billion monthly users last year and has some of the most engaged users of all social media platforms. WhatsApp, another Facebook-owned service, is one of the most-used communication tools in the world, with over 1.5 billion users — many of whom use the app multiple times per day. Facebook has made habit of using these tools to harvest even more data from users, even when it has promised not to. If you want to engage with people on social media, you're likely going to have to go through Facebook whether you want to or not, which exposes your information to the company, which can use it however it sees fit — even if it's not something that you have explicitly agreed to. Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal? That occurred because Facebook allowed a third-party developer to scrape tons of user data from people without their permission.
“We fundamentally disagree with Amnesty International’s report," a spokesperson for Facebook tells Mic. "Facebook enables people all over the world to connect in ways that protect privacy, including in less developed countries through tools like Free Basics. Our business model is how groups like Amnesty International – who currently run ads on Facebook – reach supporters, raise money, and advance their mission.”
Of course Amnesty International advertises on Facebook — Facebook and Google alone make up more than half of all digital advertising, and Facebook accounts for more than 83 percent of all social media advertising. If you want to reach people, particularly on social media, you do it on Facebook. Facebook knows this, because Facebook built this.
Google is unavoidable in search and advertising
Facebook, of course, isn't alone in its online dominance. Google shares a similar level of dominance in its fields. The company owns about 90 percent of the search engine market. Even its nominal competition is barely capable of amassing any traction, and none of them have managed to crack more than a five percent share of the market. The company also owns the two most-trafficked sites on the internet according to Alexa (ironically, an Amazon-owned company): Google and YouTube. Google also operates the biggest online advertising platform, with more than one-third of all online ads being placed through the company's service. That level of control gives Google the potential power to put its finger on the scale in a lot of ways, whether it's in the video content that circulates on YouTube or the results that pop up when you search for something. If you ask some regulators, the company has definitely done this. The European Union hit Google with a record $2.7 billion fine in 2017 after it found that the company favored its own shopping platform over third-party options in its search results. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal alleged that Google manipulates search results fairly regularly. The company is currently under investigation by the group of state attorneys general in the U.S. and will likely have these practices and other potentially monopolistic behaviors heavily scrutinized going forward.
“We recognize that people trust us with their information and that we have a responsibility to protect it," a spokesperson for Google tells Mic. "Over the past 18 months we have made significant changes and built tools to give people more control over their information.”
The "beginning of the Web's death"
Amnesty International isn't the first to point out that this amount of power in the hands of just a few companies bodes poorly for the future of the internet. In 2017, programmer André Staltz pointed out that more than 70 percent of all internet traffic goes through sites and services owned or operated by Facebook and Google. He called that coalescence of online activity the "beginning of the Web’s death." In the years since that proclamation, things have only gotten worse. Amazon's cloud hosting platform Amazon Web Services (AWS) owns nearly 35 percent of the market, with Microsoft and Google among the next biggest in the business. Those companies are now the backbone of our internet, whether we want them to be or not. A report from Gizmodo deemed it essentially impossible to completely cut Amazon out of one's life online because of its immense reach because its fingerprint is simply on everything now, including some of your favorite sites and services that rely on AWS. And while it may be convenient for those companies to count on Amazon's service, when there is an outage, huge swaths of the internet are affected. When AWS suffered an outage in 2017, it took down Netflix, Spotify, and Pinterest all at once. Those types of outages are likely to continue, which will become a problem when essential services are suddenly offline because of an issue at an Amazon server center.
Solutions to protect human rights
There are solutions to these problems that Amnesty International proposed in its report, but it's unlikely that tech giants are going to want to hear it. The first is to change business models to be less invested in harvesting user data. That would mean finding a whole new stream of revenue, which seems unlikely to appeal to any of these companies that care primarily about their bottom line. Seeing as Google is starting to extend its tentacles into the worlds of health and financial data, it seems safe to assume it doesn't plan to stop its collection practices any time soon. The other solution that Amnesty International proposed is more regulation that will protect people when these companies fail to. That seems like a far more likely approach, especially as governments have grown increasingly concerned about data collection in recent years. Both Facebook and Google have been subject to investigations into their practices, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has actively invited regulation — though he wants to have a hand in shaping it. Expect these companies to pour millions of dollars into lobbying the lawmakers who will be in charge of regulating them in hopes of currying favor, but they have already had their chance. They could have set rules for themselves to respect and protect the privacy of users and chose not to. Since we can't change the terms and services these companies subject us to, might as well change the terms and services that they are subjected to instead.