Breaking up Big Tech may not be necessary (or effective)

big tech
From left: Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International, and Věra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, and VP designate for Values and Transparency, European Commission, onstage at Web Summit 2019 in Lisbon, Portugal. Image credit: Sam Barnes/Web Summit via Sportsfile

At last week’s Web Summit in Lisbon, perhaps inevitably the topic of breaking up Big Tech companies came up onstage in a discussion dedicated to that topic. But while both speakers agreed that Big Tech is becoming too powerful, there was disagreement on whether a breakup was necessary, or would even solve the overall problem.

Věra Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, said that the issue of breaking up Big Tech is “a little bit of an American question”, and that the EC was looking at the problem from several different angles, such as whether companies like Facebook and Google are breaching rules related to anti-competition, data privacy, illegal or harmful content and cybersecurity.

But she considered breaking up the companies to be a last-resort solution when enforcing the rules no longer works.

“We call it the atomic bomb, which we really don’t want to use,” she said. “We want to apply our European rules on these companies and to be very strong on enforcement.”

Jourová added that the EU is in a good position to rein in Big Tech on a global scale because its regulatory approach strikes a good balance between promoting digital technology investment whilst ensuring it serves the interest of people who use it.

“We are not driven by big money, which is the American case, I think. And we are not going Chinese way, where digital technologies are used by the state for getting more control over the society.”

A “devil’s choice”

Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of NGO Amnesty International, disagreed, arguing that breaking up Big Tech was “a no-brainer” and an urgent matter because the market power they possess is ultimately a human rights issue.

“When I was a young activist in South Africa in the 1980s, we used to say information is power. Today, data is power, and the asymmetrical nature of that power is terrifying,” he said. “We have never had a moment in history where corporations and governments have the kind of access to who we are, who we engage with, what we like, even our medical conditions, because if you have a Fitbit watch, that can be triangulated into the data, and so on.”

Naidoo said that Facebook and Google control a global public square of one third of the population of the planet, where choosing to use those resources means giving up your privacy and allowing your personal data to not only be commoditized but even weaponized by extremist groups and political parties. Meanwhile, choosing not to use digital services means effectively opting out of the benefits and conveniences of the modern world.

“We are given a devil’s choice,” he said. “That is not the choice that we should be given.”

Naidoo also quoted Eric Schmidt, who said in 2010 when he was still Google’s CEO: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

“Is that the path for humanity going forward – that we give that amount of power to one company in the world?” Naidoo said. “This is not what democracy looks like. This is not what empowerment looks like. This is not what good governance looks like. And this is certainly not what protects people’s human rights.”

“Surveillance capitalism”

That said, Naidoo also noted that the Schmidt quote sums up the bigger problem of “surveillance capitalism” – the term coined by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff to describe the Big Tech business model of harvesting and selling data to create massive digital portfolios of users – which is not going to go away if breakups really do happen.

“While breakup is where the conversation is … that’s not going to deal with the problem, because you can break up these companies and still have the same surveillance model,” he said. “People used to talk about the military industrial complex. Today we can talk about the surveillance industrial complex. So given all of these things, the way things are going is threatening the very definition of what it means to be human.”

Naidoo was also critical of relying on the regulatory approach to keeping Big Tech in line, citing the US Federal Trade Commission’s $5 billion fine that it slapped on Facebook earlier this year in a settlement over its privacy practices. “For Facebook, that’s less than a parking fine, and the next day the share price went up.”

The EC’s Jourová said this is why the EC is encouraging the US to pass a law similar to GDPR that doesn’t just rely on financial penalties but also gives users more control over their data than they had previously. That said, she added, GDPR also imposes much tougher financial penalties than current US law – 4% of annual turnover.

“This is something which might keep them disciplined,” she said.

Regarding the argument by Big Tech companies that breaking them up would enable Chinese competitors to step in and impose their own data collection policies on users that would be far worse than what Western companies do, Jourová said this would be irrelevant with more laws like GDPR in place.

“I don’t see any reason why the European Union should be the battlefield between the United States and China on this,” she said. “When companies want to operate in the European market, be they American or Chinese, they have to respect our laws. And if not, we will sanction them.”

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