Google, Amazon and Facebook shape our desires and choices, but are also a breeding ground for manipulation. What rules are needed?
Last March Wired USA‘s sported a cover with an image of the bruised face of Mark Zuckerberg, a metaphor of the heavy blows that had been raining down on Facebook. But the round was by no means over. Since then more blows have landed, with social and political implications that have profoundly affected this year 2018. These include the Cambridge Analytica case, the manipulations of consent during the American elections and the Brexit referendum and the anti-Soros campaign documented by the New York Times. Then came the reputational damage, the internal defections and the conflicts with investors. In the last quarter Facebook shares have lost 30% of their value and Zuckerberg – so they say – has considered shutting the whole thing down.
An annus horribilis. Which has however shone a light on the issue of privacy on the web and the risks it poses to democracy. Providing further proof, if any was needed, of the immense power wielded by the digital overlords, and how far behind politics is right now, as it calls for compliance with rules it is about time it started to write. In this “Far West” as Steven Spielberg has called it, the focus of our political representatives, the media and public opinion is all centred around Facebook, clearly more exposed, while its two partners in crime are almost forgotten: Google, which in 2018 celebrated its 20th anniversary and Amazon, which twenty years ago was already landing in Europe. Because these last scandals are only the tip of an iceberg on which billions of people are floating.
Facebook has 2.23 billion active monthly users worldwide, to which one has to add the billion connected to Instagram, the 1.5 billion Whatsapp users and the 1.3 billion Messenger enthusiasts. Google owns YouTube and the mobile operating system Android, adopted by close to 2 billion users, not counting systems such as Gmail, Maps, Drive and Chrome, each with a billion. For Amazon the economics do the talking: over two billion “Prime” category products sold in 2018 and a share value of one thousand billion dollars topped in September. These numbers and the varied range of offers provided give us an idea of the impact these three companies have on our daily lives. In Italy alone, according to comScore, there are 30 million mobile internet users and 80% use Google and Facebook applications at least once.
These huge digital platforms have become part of our lives. And they’ve managed to because they’ve built up a “virtual” representation of a world that is increasingly evolved and close to “reality”, to the extent that the dichotomy that was in favour in the ’00s makes little sense anymore. Facebook has reproduced our social relations by exploiting our will to share and stick our nose into other people’s business through profiles, friendships and likes. Google has index-linked all our information and knowledge by fuelling our need to know through the various Google Search, News, Books and Maps systems. Amazon has built the largest shop in the world by simplifying online buying and shipping. Thus these giants, while competing among themselves, have found a balance in a tripartite division: each has a monopoly in a particular sector of web experience and together, they constitute a triopoly that dominates the web.
This tale began at least twenty years ago. The platforms began by offering useful, efficient and enjoyable services that won over users and vanquished the competition .They have gradually insinuated themselves into our lives and become essential. With their interfaces they have changed the way we act, interact and think. They have done so with our consent and (supposedly) at no cost and with the aim of constantly reinforcing this bond. Now it’s obvious: we think of Google Maps, which digitally recreates the spaces we move in to guide us to wherever we going; the augmented reality, the technology employed in Facebook and Instagram Stories that overlays digital objects to what we are framing with our smartphone cameras; to the more recent virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, a software you can speak to. This kind of application enables them to know where we are and how we’re moving, what questions we ask ourselves, what we’re seeing. And here’s the rub. Being all-pervasive means knowing us: reading part of our lives as if it was a book. Knowing us means putting every book on a specific shelf: profiling us and putting us in relation one to the other. Every activity we perform via the Internet provides data on our interests, tastes, inclinations and behaviour: the bricks of our own, very personal, virtual representation.
The control exercised by Facebook, Google and Amazon is related to what we’re doing but also to what we might and perhaps will do. Being privy to data and interpreting it enables one to make forecasts: this is what the business model of the three digital giants is based around, as they show users advertising, products, information and content of every kind based on what they know about them, enhancing the visibility of what may be more appreciated and that might stimulate further action (a like, a click, a purchase, etc.). That’s why Facebook and Google purchase data from third parties on credit card use. That’s why Google used to “read” messages sent by Gmail. That’s why Google and Amazon invest in cloud computing services to which thousands of companies entrust their data and on entertainment such as music and videos.
Becoming increasingly integrated with people’s daily lives and obtaining an increasing amount of data about them to get to know them better and satisfy them so they continue to use their services. We would say that, besides the profits that the three companies share, the triopoly also has a vocation for omniscience. Because “Our data is this cartography of the inside of our psyche”, says Franklin Foer, the author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. “They know our weaknesses, and they know the things that give us pleasure and the things that cause us anxiety and anger. They use that information in order to keep us addicted”. And all this will only increase the progress of artificial intelligence and automatic learning. We can already imagine what kind of level of understanding of users can be achieved by analysing the conversations they hold with an improved version of today’s virtual assistants.
Where are we headed? There’s no need to turn to fiction to catch a glimpse of dystopic scenarios. If what Cambridge Analytica has done is not sufficiently disturbing, China has recently implemented what is known as “social credit”, a system that through collaboration between the government authorities and the dominant information technology platforms (Baidu, WeChat, Tencent, ecc.) assigns a score to each citizen based on their online and offline conduct. It may be harder for something similar to happen in the West: since 2017 the institutions have clashed with Facebook and Google many times and editors and media centres have unleashed minor rebellions. But there’s an issue there and it has to be addressed once and for all: how can we control Internet giants and rein in their power? The solution is not Beijing styled statism, and even less so a Luddite approach to technology as some are calling for. What is required are active policies: regulations in step with the times and investments that can wrestle the exclusive rights over technological research and development away from these companies.
You will find this article in the eastwest paper magazine at newwstand.