Wednesday July 06, 2022

Big tech’s vast reach

September 10, 2020

Billions of people around the world have come to rely on the services Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google provide to exercise their basic human rights. But for many people, both within and outside the US, the concentration of power in these companies has meant considerable harm.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid using one of these companies’ products when online. Facebook and Google in particular have become gateways for accessing and disseminating information. Each month, almost 3 billion people use Facebook or WhatsApp or Instagram (which it acquired in recent years). More than 90 percent of Facebook’s users are outside the United States. More than 90 percent of the world uses Google Search, and Google’s Android software backs at least three of every four of the world’s smartphones.

That concentration of power exacerbates the harm that’s done when these companies fail to protect privacy or regulate content responsibly and in line with human rights.

The source of many of human rights concerns associated with Facebook and Google’s services is their surveillance-based business model. This model allowed email, social media, search, video, or other services to grow into huge, dominant networks because billions of users could sign up without paying any fees.

Instead, these platforms monetized our data, by turning it into ad revenue. Their algorithms are engineered to maximize “user engagement” – clicks, likes, and shares – which leads to more engagement with their products, generates more data, and leads to more advertising revenue. Studies have shown divisive and sensationalist content are more likely to drive engagement.

This is especially problematic because these companies have rushed to capture markets without fully understanding the societies and political environments in which they operate. Facebook targeted countries in the Global South with low internet penetration rates to promote a Facebook-centric version of the internet through an app called Free Basics as well as other initiatives. It entered into partnerships with telecom companies to provide free access to Facebook and a limited number of approved websites, along with its aggressive strategy of buying up competitors like WhatsApp and Instagram.

This strategy has had devastating consequences, especially when it was effective in dominating information ecosystems.

Myanmar is arguably the most infamous case, where Facebook was used by hardline ultranationalists to spread hate speech and promote ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.

Excerpted from: ‘Big Tech’s Global Reach’