Alphabet, Microsoft, Meta, Apple; Why Tech Monopolies matter
I’m not going to lie, I was sick to my stomach this week reading about Meta.
Meta, Facebook’s new brand name, is similar to Alphabet, in that it now encompasses an entire slew of platforms leading with it’s most notable service. Alphabet is Google’s “Parent company” like Meta is now Facebook’s new parent company. This re-branding helps Facebook distinguish itself from it's data-swine persona that whistleblower, Frances Haugen, has recently shown in very public light. Meta, can proudly showcase that an array of their assets (non-Facebook companies), are under this enterprise umbrella - "proving" they are not a single-platform media monopoly. The challenge is that Meta, along with Alphabet and other Big Tech companies, are hiding colossal amounts of our data, our information, behind a multitude of enterprises instead of just one platform.
So how does this affect us? Imagine driving down the street and all the billboards pointing your direction are custom made for you. The models on the billboards look and act like you. The billboards can predict where you’re going and when. They know similar items you like to buy from similar Ads.. They know you can afford what they’re selling, and are ripe to grab your attention in the exact custom manner, at the exact custom timing, for you to buy. At first, it sounds great from the driver’s seat; you don’t want to waste your time looking at other Ads. But what if these billboards aren’t just selling positive products that you want and need? What if they are flashing political messaging, religious messaging, or completely untrue cultural messaging? That’s not good. What if they aren’t policed, are refusing patrol, and though take money from politically-based post(er)s, claim they are not journalist companies? Furthermore, what if these billboard companies know that they not only have led you astray from the truth, but that they also know they are psychologically hurting millions of people with their Ads.? Now, what if only 1 company owns all the billboards, on all the roads. This company can message you, lead you, your car, your spending, your time, and to some extent, your entire life. - This image has an eerie similarity to not just Big Brother, but a puppet master directing every driver to what it wants when it wants it.
See, giving away your data, is feeding very powerful billboard companies. There are five or six huge enterprises in the world that own almost 100% of the digital billboards. They prioritize Google searches for you specifically. They introduce social media feeds, and specific digital Ads. to you. And they lead you to Apps. and plug-ins that will scrape more data and lead you to an even narrower and extreme digital life. Alphabet, and now Meta, are two of these companies. And to-date, they shut down those that are against their power-stake; whether that’s by lobbying the Federal government, barring users (persons or entire companies), or creating umbrella companies where their main data-source (Google or Facebook), is just a slice of their enterprise rather than the majority. It’s hard to break up a diverse monopoly.
And on the surface, we love these companies. We communicate, learn, and stay organized with Google. We connect to friends and family on Facebook. And what the heck would we do without Apple? As a designer, and a technology enthusiast, if I didn't have Macbook or an iphone it would truly be a sad day. But some of you might remember Microsoft and Bill Gate’s legal woes in the 1990s. At the time, their market share was over 90%. Google’s has 93%, today. It’s a monopoly.
We’re not quite sure what to do about these “billboard companies”. Break them up? It’s hard to break up a diversified conglomerate like Meta - who owns Facebook, but also Instagram, Mapillary, and Oculus among other brands. Regulate them? The lines can be hairy, and their lobbying is intense. The EU started formally protecting the citizens’ data privacy with the GDPR in 2016. It’s a great start. But first, we need to understand what digital monopolies mean. How they impact us, and similar to a lot of other world-wide culture shifts, start with small acts. Regulate your data-gathering digital cookies by unchecking a box or two when they ask, clean them off your computer once a month, use alternative search engines 1 day a week. As a population, small steps lead to bigger changes.
Mark Zuckerberg notably once wrote, “What’s good for the world, is not necessarily good for Facebook.” So, let's first realize that Facebook’s formation of parent company Meta, is good for Facebook, but not necessarily good for the world.