People don’t care about data privacy. This is the explanation of some analysts for why there hasn’t been a boycott against the big internet companies. If people cared, surely scandals like when Facebook leaked the personal data of 50 million Americans to Cambridge Analytica, or reports that Google secretly purchased financial data to track users’ purchases would’ve led to some sort of departure from these platforms by now.
The problem: It seems people do care. The Pew Research Center found that 80 percent of users were concerned about businesses and advertisers accessing the data they share on social media platforms. Furthermore, 61 percent of users said they would like to do more to protect their privacy.
So why haven’t people stopped using Google or Facebook?
Because there aren’t viable alternatives. Sure, there are a number of companies that aim to provide privacy as part of their product — Duck Duck Go for your search engine, Signal for messaging, FastMail for email. However, the costs of switching make it unrealistic for most people.
For example, if you want to use Signal for messaging, you would have to convince each person you message with on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, etc., to switch over to Signal in order to message them. To use FastMail for email, it costs $30 per year minimum. Additionally, there is the hassle of transferring contacts, photos and prior data to these new services.
Why aren’t there real alternatives? The nature of many tech companies means the value of their products increase as more people use them. This makes challenging the big tech firms a herculean task, as not only do you need a competitive product, you also need to be able to overcome a massive user base disadvantage (almost a third of the world’s population uses Facebook). Further exacerbating this situation is one from the wide array of anti-competitive actions that tech companies employ.
For instance, tech companies often use acquisitions to snuff out potential competition and expand into new industries. Many of Google’s central products such as YouTube, Android and DoubleClick (Google’s ad service) were acquired as start-ups. Forays into new technologies such as the internet of things and artificial intelligence were jump-started by purchases as well — Nest and DeepMind respectively. Furthermore, companies that compete with Google’s products face challenges including Google wielding its product arsenal to place them at a disadvantage, like when Google manipulated search results to promote its own services and demote competitors offering similar services.
This pattern of anti-competitive actions can be found across the tech giants. Whether it’s Amazon purposefully hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars to force an acquisition, or Facebook purchasing potential competitors like WhatsApp and Instagram, anti-competitiveness is a core feature of the big internet companies’ business models. These practices make it difficult for consumers to influence the marketplace, reducing their ability to hold companies accountable by taking their business elsewhere.
There are signs that tech companies’ bigness is starting to be noticed. In the European Union, Google faces two fines due to anti-trust violations — each with a price tag over $2 billion. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a presidential candidate for 2020, has introduced antitrust legislation that includes a ban on acquisitions for companies with a market capitalization above $100 billion (Facebook, Google and Amazon all have market capitalizations well above $100 billion). Lina Khan, an academic fellow at Columbia University and a former legal fellow at the Federal Trade Commission, has proposed a new legal theory, which contends that even when monopolies appear to benefit consumers by offering free services or low prices, they can still be deeply harmful. She argues that these monopolies can distort not just markets, but American life, through things like enormous tax cuts, commissioned studies and aggressive lobbying (Amazon’s HQ2 debacle illustrates this perfectly).
To put power back in consumers’ hands, the tech giants should be treated as the behemoths that they are. Unrestrained expansion has made consumers powerless to influence the market with their choices, and now government must step in on their behalf with oversight and regulations that hold companies accountable. The scale of the largest tech companies has given us free services and revolutionary products, but that scale has externalities that must be dealt with.
It’s a mistake to interpret consumers’ inaction in the tech industry as apathy. People truly care about their privacy on the internet, but the current situation makes action unrealistic for many. Until the tech industry becomes a properly functioning market — or is regulated like a public utility — consumers will be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci can be reached at email@example.com.