The Maastricht Diplomat

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  • Anahita Lotfollahzadeh

Facebook: The only crucial book of the digital age

Facebook and co. might be the big tech equivalent to the infamous toxic ex-partner most of us have at least encountered in the movies. This particular person is simultaneously good and bad for you and entirely inescapable despite all efforts. They are someone who randomly appears at all the parties you go to and send you friendship requests online. Somehow they end up knowing way more about your life than you would like. You love them, but the uncertainty just won’t vanish. The difference between the two? Your ex probably does not monetize their knowledge… Or do they?

Enough with the metaphors.

In this day and age, it is almost impossible to remove ourselves from a life intertwined with technology. We are dealing with an omnipresent technological dependency of individuals, businesses, and even governments.

Many have been asking the question of how much longer big tech can remain in a more or less unregulated and legal gray zone. The concerns range from “To what extent should digital monopolies be tolerated?” to “How can mental health concerns, in terms of Big Tech, be acted upon?” to “How can freedom of speech, the freedom of press and democracy be secured in the face of limiting the spread of false information and illegal content?”.

Let’s start simple. Before we get into the issues concerning Big Tech, we should define Big Tech.

There are different interpretations of the expression ‘Big Tech’. You might define it broadly, as in the world’s biggest information technology companies. More commonly, it narrows down to Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook), Microsoft, and depending on the source, Twitter and Netflix. These companies are known to play an essential role in fields of technology ranging from consumer electronics to artificial intelligence.

A range of news and media outcries connected to these companies has slowly, but steadily, led to growing skepticism towards them. Most importantly, it brought about increased concern regarding the neglect of their regulation.

One distinct example is the Facebook­-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Cambridge Analytica, a British ‚global election management company’ and political consulting firm, collected personal data of users without their consent in order to construct psychometric voter profiles. Many actors tied this firm to the British and American conservative political groups. Consecutively, Cambridge Analytica analytically assisted Donald Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaigns using those illegally obtained voter profiles. For academic research purposes, Facebook stated, researchers were routinely provided access to user data, adding that users consent to this when creating a Facebook account. According to Facebook, the platform generally prohibits personal user data to be sold for advertising and monetization purposes. Details are fuzzy, since statements made at different points in time by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook officials changed in nuance and were incoherent.

This scandal reminded the public, once more, that if we are not paying for the product, we most probably are the product. Meaning our data is collected and used to make a profit. Not all of these practices are illegal. Still, many are to be placed in the legal gray zone. The aforementioned legally gray zone is not something that should be taken lightly, is it? Technology can greatly impact the way that individuals and societies develop. Thus, legal gray zones are in need of some color.

There is a problematic inconvenience in the way of imposing a legal frame on information technology companies. These companies are international. Setting up a global legal framework would be utopic. Therefore, it makes sense to build this frame supranationally.

In March 2022, new rules by the European Union, a supranational union of 27 member states, were discussed between Parliament and Council negotiators. Those rules, outlined in the Digital Markets Act (DMA), aim to put a limit on big tech market power. Abuse of ‘gatekeeping powers’ are looked to be banned. Gatekeeping platforms are those that function as a bottleneck for digital marketing. A rather simple example would be a search engine, which by selecting the results shown to consumers, controls access to the online market. To be considered gatekeepers, companies must control a large part of this market. They must be valued at more than 75 billion Euros, with sales exceeding 7,5 billion Euros and a minimum of 45 million users per month.

The proposed DMA strives to broaden user choice. Payment systems binding the users of certain devices and operating systems would be prohibited. For instance, Apple, would be legally bound to offer more payment methods alternative to ApplePay. Google and Android would be just as affected. Operating systems, softwares and applications on devices need to be “deletable” and “replaceable” by alternatives.

Apple claimed that “some provisions of the DMA will create unnecessary privacy and security vulnerabilities for our users" and Google expressed that, "while we support many of the DMA's ambitions around consumer choice and interoperability, we're worried that some of these rules could reduce innovation and the choice available to Europeans."

Another issue society has been increasingly facing is the high-speed spreading of false information, hate speech, conspiracies, and polarization. The idea that the algorithmic spread of information could potentially lead to real and atrocious consequences is worrying. In a health crisis, such as COVID-19, algorithms can have a direct effect on how society responds to changes.

Information can not and should not be limited as such, but there is something inherently wrong with keeping the horizons of users limited to what is already known to them.

Take any vulnerable person who is given an easy explanation for their misery in a video showing conspiracy-based content. They might not be fully aware of the nature of conspiratorial thinking. Instead of possibly encountering opposing content, facing the cognitive dissonance of being given two sets of the respectively exclusive information, and being motivated to research the question at hand, they are kept in their bubble of ideology and disinformation.

Changes necessary revolve around privacy, safety, competition and honesty of big tech. The stakes are high in a world that is led by technology, a world and reality that takes place via technology.

It is out of question how much technology facilitates and enriches our lives. Nevertheless, we need to be aware that we are moving on new grounds. Our realities have extended into the technological realm. We must be aware of the seriousness of “tech reality” and treat it as such.

Tech is an ocean of possibilities. Let’s make sure nobody drowns in it!

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