Kicking Big Tech
Animosity toward Big Tech is growing.
Concerns about their monopoly power have put antitrust enforcement on the minds of lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic, and scandals seem to be continually engulfing the big five tech companies, or GAFAM — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft — as the French call them.
No one trusts Google with their data, its employees are trying to stop it from developing a censored search engine for China, and it conveniently forgot to tell anyone about a hidden microphone in a Nest product. Apple is under fire for its App Store policies and there are questions as to whether its privacy focus is legitimate or just a ploy for good press. Every month there seems to be a new revelation about how Facebook disregards people’s privacy for profit. Amazon is under fire for the treatment of its workers, selling facial-recognition systems to law enforcement, and for holding cities hostage to stop taxes it doesn’t want to pay or demand billions in incentives to expand its operations. Microsoft is facing criticism for developing software for I.C.E., the U.S. immigration police known for breaking up families and caging children. And that’s just a taste of the unethical behavior that’s leading people to want action against GAFAM.
If we accept that these companies are operating in ways that go against our values, what is our response? Is there anything we can do? I have to admit, I don’t think our individuals choices as to whether we use them or not will make much of a difference to how they conduct business unless they’re abandoned on a really large scale. The only way to change their actions is with structural solutions, which is a conversation that Elizabeth Warren recently contributed to with her proposals to break up the big tech companies. Whether her plans are the silver bullet are beyond the scope of this piece, but they play an important role in making people think about what such a policy and the post-break up world might look like.
Even though structural change will not be enacted by individual consumption choices, there are still solid arguments to change our personal habits. If companies are acting in ways we deem immoral, should we spend our money on them, or should we seek out more ethical — or less morally compromised — alternatives? While the withdrawal of income from major players may not do much to their bottom line, shifting it to a smaller player could make a difference for those challengers.
It’s probably not realistic to think that we can fully abstain from interacting with certain tech companies because they’ve grown so large and touch so many facets of the internet as it’s currently constituted. Kashmir Hill recently conducted an experiment for Gizmodo to see whether it was feasible to eliminate GAFAM from her life, and she found it near impossible. Giving up Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft was easier, but Google and Amazon were much more difficult because of how they’ve built themselves into the foundation of the internet through tracking and hosting.
Hill’s experiment and my growing distaste for what many of the big tech companies are doing led me to consider how I might reduce my dependence on them. This is what I came up with.
Apple and Google are the two of the GAFAM that I’m most tied into, and Google is the one I’m most willing to try to reduce my dependence on. Personally, I’m angry about what their sister company, Sidewalk Labs, is doing in Toronto, which has made me more driven to stop making it so easy for the tech giant to get my data.
Google is my default search engine, so I’ve considered trying DuckDuckGo. It’s also my email provider, through GSuite, and I’ve been looking at Zoho Mail as an alternative. YouTube, however, seems impossible to avoid.
I don’t use Android, Calendar, Chrome, Hangouts, or any Google Home products, and I rarely use Drive or Docs. The latter would be easy to never use again, and to fully replace the former I would need to choose another cloud provider for occasional sharing of large files — or maybe I could upload them temporarily to my hosting plan as necessary.
The other big aspect to Google is tracking, and that’s a piece I’d have to look into a bit more. I’m pretty sure Safari has built-in tools to limit tracking — maybe I’m even using them — but there must be more comprehensive tools out there.
Apple is the company I’m most dependent on. I have a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and an iPad for university that I rarely use. All of my data is backed up in Cloud, I use plenty of their apps: Books, Calendar, Health, iMessage, Notes, Numbers, Pages, Safari, and some other default ones.
I don’t use Music, Podcasts, or iTunes, and it doesn’t seem their forthcoming video service will be very enticing. I could move my data to a different cloud service, but that would be far less convenient than my current setup. Calendar and Notes would be easy to transfer to third-party apps, and I could start using a different browser, but I have to be honest: Apple’s privacy propaganda has, to some degree, made me less worried about using their services. I don’t feel they’re trying to capture all of my data in the way that Google would, but maybe I’m being naive and should do a little more research. Their strategy is working.
Oddly, the one that most concerns me is Books. I buy ebooks direct from the publisher so they can be used with any app when I can, but most major publishers don’t sell their books directly, forcing me to buy them through a store using DRM which won’t let me move them to other apps. And since I don’t want to use Kindle and prefer Apple’s app to Kobo’s app (which is owned by multinational conglomerate Rakuten), I think I’m stuck.
This one’s easier. My Facebook account is deactivated, though I should probably fully delete it. Sometimes I wonder if I should still maintain a Facebook Page, but I’m not too worried about that. I also don’t use Messenger.
I have a Whatsapp account, but I never use it. And while I use Instagram less than I used to, I still check it daily and I’m hesitant to give it up, though I have been toying with the idea. If Facebook is really planning to tie Instagram more closely into its other messaging services, that may be the breaking point.
Another easy one. I don’t really use Amazon, nor do I have any Alexa devices. I have a Prime Student account, but I regretted it the moment I signed up because I knew I wouldn’t get the benefits. I haven’t cancelled it, but I won’t be renewing. Over the past year, I’ve only made one or two orders, and I find the Prime Video selection is pretty bad (at least in Canada).
I also don’t use Twitch or Kindle, and I haven’t been in a Whole Foods since Amazon took over — but that’s not hard since there aren’t any where I live. I don’t use Kindle, though I have the app if I need to check an ebook I purchased when I used it before 2015, and I use Goodreads and occasionally check IMDb. I’m sure some AWS hosts some websites I visit, but that’s out of my control.
I don’t own any Microsoft products that I can think of, but I use Outlook and Office for university, and for the moment they’re unavoidable. I don’t have Windows on my Mac, nor do I have an Xbox, but I have LinkedIn and Skype accounts.
Oh, and I don’t use Bing. Or Cortana.
The other players
I don’t use Uber or Lyft, but I am a Twitter addict. I have a Samsung television, but I don’t think it does voice commands. I also have Netflix and Spotify, and while I don’t have a Playstation, I’ve considered getting one.
I’ve also been thinking about how to cut out other major conglomerates, such as not buying glasses made by Luxottica or shoes made by Nike, and whether I should cut back on my Starbucks habit. It actually wouldn’t be too hard with many consumer goods, but just thinking about it really makes you see the degree to which the economy has been consolidated in the hands of a small number of major corporations.
I want to reiterate that personal consumption isn’t going to change the world. If we really want to change the structure of the economy, that will require political solutions, but we can choose how to spend our dollars based on which companies we want to associate ourselves with.
After going through each of the companies, I honestly feel I’m not trying hard enough. It seems that with the way things are currently structured, I’ll always have to be reliant in some form on some of the GAFAM, and that the choice we currently face is whether to use a bit of most of them, or become more dependent on one or two in order to cut out the rest. I’m pretty dependent on Apple, which makes it easier to cut out the others, and while I’d prefer that not be the case, I guess I’m somewhat content with it, as frustrated as I’m becoming with the company.
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, but I think we can all agree we’d be better off reining in the power of all of these companies instead of letting them get even bigger. The time has come for real action to get corporate power in line.