• Break Up Facebook (and, While We’re At It, Google, Apple, and Amazon)

    Break Up Facebook (and, While We’re At It, Google, Apple, and Amazon)

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    The New York Times revealed last week that Facebook executives withheld evidence of Russian activity on the Facebook platform far longer than previously disclosed. They also employed a political opposition research firm to discredit critics.

    There’s a larger story here.

    America’s Gilded Age of the late 19th century began with a raft of innovations — railroads, steel production, oil extraction — but culminated in mammoth trusts owned by “robber barons” who used their wealth and power to drive out competitors and corrupt American politics.

    We’re now in a second Gilded Age — ushered in by semiconductors, software and the internet — that has spawned a handful of giant high-tech companies.

    Facebook and Google dominate advertising. They’re the first stops for many Americans seeking news. Apple dominates smartphones and laptop computers. Amazon is now the first stop for a third of all American consumers seeking to buy anything.

    This consolidation at the heart of the American economy creates two big problems.

    First, it stifles innovation. Contrary to the conventional view of a U.S. economy bubbling with inventive small companies, the rate at which new job-creating businesses have formed in the United States has been halved since 2004, according to the census.

    A major culprit: Big tech’s sweeping patents, data, growing networks, and dominant platforms have become formidable barriers to new entrants.

    The second problem is political. These enormous concentrations of economic power generate political clout that’s easily abused, as the New York Times investigation of Facebook reveals. How long will it be before Facebook uses its own data and platform against critics? Or before potential critics are silenced even by the possibility?

    America responded to the Gilded Age’s abuses of corporate power with antitrust laws that allowed the government to break up the largest concentrations.

    President Teddy Roosevelt went after the Northern Securities Company, a giant railroad trust financed by J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, the nation’s two most powerful businessmen. The U.S. Supreme Court backed Roosevelt and ordered the company dismantled.

    In 1911, President William Howard Taft broke up Rockefeller’s sprawling Standard Oil empire.

    It is time to use antitrust again. We should break up the high-tech behemoths, or at least require that they make their proprietary technology and data publicly available and share their platforms with smaller competitors.

    There would be little cost to the economy, because these giant firms rely on innovation rather than economies of scale — and, as noted, they’re likely to be impeding innovation overall.

    Is this politically feasible? Unlike the Teddy Roosevelt Republicans, Trump and his enablers in Congress have shown little appetite for antitrust enforcement.

    But Democrats have shown no greater appetite — especially when it comes to Big Tech.

    In 2012, the staff of the Federal Trade Commission’s bureau of competition submitted to the commissioners a 160-page analysis of Google’s dominance in the search and related advertising markets, and recommended suing Google for conduct that “has resulted — and will result — in real harm to consumers and to innovation.” But the commissioners, most of them Democratic appointees, chose not to pursue the case.

    The Democrats’ new “better deal” platform, which they unveiled a few months before the midterm elections, included a proposal to attack corporate monopolies in industries as wide-ranging as airlines, eyeglasses and beer. But, notably, the proposal didn’t mention Big Tech.

    Maybe the Democrats are reluctant to attack Big Tech because the industry has directed so much political funding to Democrats. In the 2018 midterms, the largest recipient of Big Tech’s largesse, ActBlue, a fundraising platform for progressive candidates, collected nearly $1 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    As the Times investigation of Facebook makes clear, political power can’t be separated from economic power. Both are prone to abuse.

    One of the original goals of antitrust law was to prevent such abuses.

    “The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economical conquests only, but for political power,” warned Edward G. Ryan, chief justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, in 1873.

    Antitrust law was viewed as a means of preventing giant corporations from undermining democracy.

    “If we will not endure a king as a political power,” thundered Ohio Sen. John Sherman, the sponsor of the nation’s first antitrust law in 1890, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale” of what the nation produced.

    We are now in a second Gilded Age, similar to the first when Congress enacted Sherman’s law. As then, giant firms at the center of the American economy are distorting the market and our politics.

    We must resurrect antitrust.

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  • Here’s What #Google and #Facebook Know About You—And What You Can Do About It

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    If you use Google or Facebook, you may have wondered just how much of your personal data these big internet giants have access to. This is a good question to ask in our modern era of Big Data, constant connectivity and rapidly decreasing personal privacy. Some people, like Washington State Chief Privacy Officer Alex Alben, even argue that your personal data isn’t really “personal” at all. In other words, you may have unwittingly agreed to give your deepest information to third-party vendors through websites and apps simply by agreeing to their lengthy and frequently skimmed Terms of Service.

    By the looks of it, Google seems to have some of the most invasive amounts of data on its users. This isn’t to say the company is using personal data on people for malicious and nefarious purposes. But the frequency, detail and amount it has amassed over the years are beginning to put people on edge. Let’s start off with location. If you have Google maps enabled (like many of us), your physical movements and the time you take to get from Point A to Point B, wherever that may be, has been logged into its search database. If you want to see proof of this activity, look at your Google timeline.

    Then there’s your search history. Google maintains a database of your search entries as a way to learn more about you and your preferences. But if you fear that this constant logging of your personal search history is a dash too deep for your taste, you need to delete your search history from all the devices you own. That’s not all. Ads, too, factor into Google’s profiles of its users. To give you an example, Google has an advertisement profile on me; its algorithm asserts that I'm a female between the age of 25-34 and that I might like computers, hair care and politics. Google presents ads based on the personal information you give the website, including your age, gender, location, and other metrics. Plus, Google stores your YouTube search history and maintains a log of information on the apps you use. From the amount you spend on these apps to the people you talk to, Google stores that information in its database.

    Suppose you’re not exactly excited about your digital footprint being so minutely tracked. When it comes to Google, you can do two things. For starters, you can download a copy of everything Google has on you through the Google takeout option. Depending on how often you’ve used it, the amount of information can range from kilobytes to gigabytes and more.

    After that, and perhaps more importantly, you can opt out of the Google Analytics program. Google Analytics lets website owners see traffic, number of clicks, time spent on a page, and a lot more for their own analyses. You can refuse to be part of this data collection by using the Google Analytics opt-out add-on for your browser. These little steps can restore some element of privacy to your online activity.

    Then there’s Facebook. Amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social network giant is under massive fire from observers who say its practices on privacy are reprehensible. With many people joining the #DeleteFacebook sentiment, the company recently shared an update in its security settings, saying that access to it would be more readily available for users. But if you’re interested in knowing just how much Facebook has on you in terms of personal data, check out its download feature. Go to your general account settings and look for “Download a copy of your Facebook data” at the bottom of the options.

    It might be slightly jarring to see just how much Facebook logs about its users. From personal conversations, phone numbers, apps, photos, videos, events, locations, and a whole lot more, Facebook’s data can be converted into tons of documents on individual users. I’ll give you my example. Since 2008, Facebook has 430.1 megabytes of personal data on me. To make sense of such a colossal amount, conversion to a Word document helps. Since one megabyte is almost 500 character-filled pages, that's about 215,050 pages of text on yours truly. To make matters less uncomfortable, that’s several novels.

    While Facebook tries to figure out how to respond to growing concern over its privacy settings, you can do your (small) part in tightening your profile. You can opt out of Facebook’s API sharing feature so that third-party websites, games and applications don’t have access to your data.

    All of this information on information is to say that when you decide to use a website or program, read about it attentively to see what you’re getting into. Most of the time, the most unnerving aspects about Google and Facebook are actually part of their openly stated business models. As a Google spokesperson told CNBC News, “In order to make the privacy choices that are right for them, it's essential that people can understand and control their Google data. Over the years, we've developed tools like My Account expressly for this purpose, and we'd encourage everyone to review it regularly.”

    Mehreen Kasana is a news writer for AlterNet. Previously, she worked as the front-page editor for the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @mehreenkasana. 

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