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Pulling the Plug on Big Tech

One of the biggest changes the technological revolution has given rise to is the rise of the dominant business model of providing free services to people in exchange for an extraordinary wide licence to exploit their data. There is a cost to us that we don’t see, but we are starting to see that it is having a large and incremental impact on our communities, our societies, and our lives. The “Big Tech” digital gatekeepers such as Facebook, Google, Snapchat, etc. refine and exploit our data and have by now laid waste to the advertising multiverse and turned that once diverse ecosystem into a duopoly. This change has undermined industries that relied on traditional advertising, such as the media, the value of which we only now beginning to understand.

However much we might come to regret it, it seems that there is no alternative if we want the convenience of the internet. For many people, Google is the internet, Facebook is their channel of communication and Amazon is the chosen purveyor of goods in almost every category. With legislative innovations of data portability in Europe and the advent of blockchain technology, finally there may be a way to square the circle of retaining privacy and still being able to reward content creators through micro-sharing tools currently under development.

Pulling the plug on Facebook represents the unwinding of the social network spiral designed to exploit our vulnerability. Sean Parker, the former President of Facebook, recently admitted to the website Axios:

“… we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

He then added for good measure “God knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

The average Canadian now spends 75 hours a month (2.5 hours a day) browsing the web, watching internet video, and using mobile devices, according to a recent comScore report described by the Globe and Mail. But in the millennial category, the average time spent online, rises to 110 hours a month, with the majority of time spent on a mobile device.

This leaves quite a trail of data. Those data, of course, have tremendous value to the Big Tech, who use it to analyze patterns of behaviour and sell highly targeted advertisements that follow us round the internet. Some of these are just plain annoying, but others are more worrying.

Not only are Facebook and other digital gatekeepers messing with our children’s brains, but also the future of the free and open internet. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, envisaged the internet as an “open platform that allows anyone to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographical boundaries”. He is rightfully concerned that the free and open internet is being undermined by increasingly powerful digital gatekeepers, whose platforms can be manipulated by various organizations and even governments to spread malvertising and fake news.

Google was not so long ago just a delightfully simple search engine with a playful logo that would not look out of place in a child’s nursery. It’s original mission statement was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and its corporate objective included the mandate “don’t be evil”. With exponential growth and diversification into other technologies, it has ended up losing the clarity of its founding principles. We like to think of Google as being an ethical company that we can trust. But did you know that behind the playful search page, it has effectively become an advertising company worth $756 billion?

Google and Facebook have grown together to dominate the digital advertising market. According to a Morgan Stanley Analyst quoted in the New York Times “In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook.”

There is an adage in the technology industry that suggests that if you are not paying for a product, you are the product. The Facebook and Google duopoly exists because we give them permission to exploit our data. Most users will casually give away privacy for the utility of using Google’s free productivity tools, but the terms and conditions and privacy policies are lengthy and non-negotiable, so most users will scroll straight to the “Accept” button without really understanding what happens to their data.

Google is more than a search engine. Google’s Gmail offers users of its email service a massive 2 GB of email storage for free. You never need delete an email again. The catch is that your emails will reside on Google’s servers forever. Google’s employees won’t read your email messages, but they are electronically scanned for key phrases to target advertising accordingly. Although the key phrases are not extracted from email, the advertisements selected for display are recorded for billing purposes and these records will inevitably disclose some private details. Privacy advocates argue that this scanning of emails violates the trust we place in email providers to maintain our expectation of privacy. (This diluted expectation of privacy is what I believe Jan Lindsay, then President of Law Society of British Columbia, was referring to when she is reported to have said at a conference in 2014: “This is black and white: BC lawyers are prohibited from using non-BC-based cloud computing providers, including Google and Dropbox.”)

Amazon fits into a different category of internet company: it is a retailer rather than an advertising company. Amazon has long been known as a category killer, because any time it expands into a category, it will undercut any competitor with its discounted prices and superior logistics. Amazon’s great asset is the granular data on preferences it extracts from its customers, allowing its algorithms to make suggestions as to what you might want to buy, before you even know you want it. But clever algorithms and superior logistics alone may not be enough to keep you coming back, hence Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime is developing sticky features like a TV streaming service, which is included in the cost. This is another kind of dopamine hit, because once you get hooked on shows like “The Grand Tour”, you’re likely to keep the service and then use Amazon to purchase increasing amounts of consumer goods with free delivery.

This kind of stickiness will be important to digital gatekeepers as governments will increasingly turn the tables on them by giving users more rights over their data. The European Union has started the movement with the introduction of the right to withdraw consent to data processing as easily as it is to give consent, coupled with the right of data portability in the General Data Protection Directive, coming into force throughout the Union in May 2018.

New tech companies are starting to offer an alternative to Big Tech. They see the value in our data but rather than exploit it, they want to monetize it by leveraging blockchain and cryptocurrency technology. Sensay and Steemit are building social networks that pays users for sharing information or content through their own cryptocurrencies. Instead of searching for the answer to a question on Google, Sensay facilitates conversations by matching your question with an anonymous expert who can answer your questions. In exchange for sharing their wisdom, the expert receives a tip in Sensay Coin. Steemit is social network that pay users in “Smart Media Tokens” to post and curate high quality content.

For a search engine, try Brave, a browser that “…blocks the ads and trackers that slow you down, chew up your bandwidth, and invade your privacy”. Phase 2 of its development will be a decentralized digital advertising ledger using the cryptocurrency “Basic Attention Token” where micro-donations are made from your BAT wallet based on the time spent on websites. BAT is aiming to become the new standard in the advertising industry. The founder of Brave, Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript and the co-founder of Mozilla and Firefox, believes that “the combination of blockchain, smart contract, browser analytics, accountable open source code, and auditability is the future of advertising on the internet.”

Eich’s sentiments may sound like inflated advertising. But I sense that not only are people increasingly concerned about how much privacy is regularly conceded to use the basic utilities of the information age, how that information is being used, and what the effect is on children’s brains, but also they are concerned about malvertising and fake news and the effect they have had in the estates of the realm. They should be concerned that the digital gatekeepers, once fun startups, are now vast profit-making machines, whose billionaire executives are openly laughing about how they exploit people to make more money. The blockchain will begin to transform whole swathes of industries where fat profits are made from intermediation and digital advertising will not be immune. Time to pull the plug on Big Tech? Be Brave!

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