2 min read.Updated: 05 Jun 2019, 10:45 PM ISTLivemint
Four Big Tech firms are under the antitrust scanner in the US to assess if they have bullied competitors and consumers. It may yield new rules on privacy. For now, it’s caveat emptor
The US government’s decision to press ahead with an antitrust probe against Big Tech firms has drawn the clout of these companies into the spotlight again. Investigators will put Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google to scrutiny in an effort to check if they have abused their market dominance to stifle competition and hurt consumers. If such behaviour is proven, it would be unsettling, to say the least, given the widening use of social media and the privacy concerns it has thrown up. That these firms wield enormous power over our online lives is beyond doubt. Facebook, for example, not only runs the world’s largest social network, it also owns WhatsApp and Instagram. Google is not just the world’s predominant search engine, but also owns YouTube.
While all these firms may have escaped the regulatory effect of market competition in their own different ways, the monopolistic tendency of a social media platform is all the more pronounced for the simple reason that its utility depends on connectivity: People have virtually no choice but to use the network that links everybody else they’d like to interact with. It’s little wonder that people sign up without even reading an app’s long scroll of terms and conditions, often framed to grant the company privileged access to their private information. So, be it your birthday, where you studied or work, who you are in a relationship with, the last holiday you took, your dietary preferences or even your political views, everything is known to the company. Mere access to such data puts an enterprise in a position of power that can be misused. It’s nobody’s argument that our little secrets are at threat, but consumer anxiety over leaks has risen. In the Cambridge Analytica case, for example, the London-based political consultancy acquired a Facebook treasure trove from an external researcher who Facebook claims sought data from it for academic purposes. It’s not just rogue operators who may be trawling your online posts. Social media psychological profiles are being generated by tools designed to aid recruitment. Official scans by state agencies are on the rise, too. The Indian tax authorities, for instance, have an eye out for lifestyles that may be disproportionate to declared sources of income. Earlier this week, the US began asking visa applicants to submit details of their social media accounts.
Social media lives don’t have the veil of anonymity that many took for granted. Deletions are not easy, servers retain old data, and hackers abound. What goes online stays online; like it or not, it’s retrievable. Whether privacy is at serious threat depends on the safeguards used by companies entrusted with our data. In some jurisdictions, state intervention has begun. In May last year, the European Union rolled out its General Data Protection Regulation after four years of debate. The law harmonized data privacy rules across Europe with an aim to enforce the privacy rights of citizens by defining how organizations must store and use their data. Unfortunately, India still doesn’t have any such law. That is indeed worrisome, considering that social media firms count the country as one of their biggest markets. Facebook, for example, has over 300 million users in India, according to Statista, the highest in the world. Until the law grants us legal control over our data, it’s for us to watch what we post.