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Tech Monopolies Prevent Effective Privacy Laws in the U.S.

by Anthony W. Accurso 

Cory Doctorow’s latest book, The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, discusses the relationship between the failure to regulate tech monopolies in the United States and the meteoric rise of government spying, tying the lack of effective privacy legislation to a subtle shift in enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

Doctorow is a Canadian blogger, journalist, and writer focusing on technology and our shared future. His fiction books Little Brother, Homeland, and Attack Surface are both entertaining and informative about how tech can be abused by governments that refuse to respect the lives of people.

The Internet Con takes a different approach, patiently explaining that a dystopian future is unfolding and has been doing so for decades, as tech and other monopolies have been allowed to grow unfettered to democracy-warping proportions. The book then illustrates how “monopolies can mobilize their profits, converting them into political power and using that to block good policy making in favor of policies that help their shareholders and hurt the public.”

Doctorow argues a kind of tech exceptionalism because, unlike monopolies and other sectors, organizing to disrupt those other monopolies requires a kind of technology that underpins our ability to communicate and act collectively. Further, other monopolies are often supported by tech produced by these companies that have an interest in furthering monopolies in general.

And the time for collective action to change the status quo is now, when people, as Doctorow writes, “are pissed at tech: about moderation, about monopolization, about price gouging, about labor abuses, and—everywhere and always—about privacy.”

One strategy that tech monopolies have enacted is to collect as much information on their users as possible, using it to manipulate customers into sticking with them instead of seeking alternatives that suck less, or effectively blackmailing them with the loss of their social connections and day-to-day conveniences.

But surveillance is not just a private enterprise. It is public-private because government agencies just love how much data companies like Google collect about people, because the agencies can get at that data. It’s no wonder then that when big tech lobbies against privacy legislation, law enforcement lobbying groups are right there arguing that any increase in privacy comes at the cost of safety.

This is, for sure, a cynical partnership. Take for instance the Prism program, a partnership which gave the NSA access to some of big tech’s customer data. Then came the truth, via Edward Snowden, that “the NSA was also plundering tech giants’ data without their knowledge, and using Prism as a ‘plausible deniability’ fig leaf so that the tech firms didn’t get suspicious when the NSA acted on its stolen intelligence.”

The pattern is clear: as long as tech companies proceed without effective regulation on what kind and how much data they can collect and retain about users, the governments of every stripe—even the so-called pro-democracy good guys—will abuse this data, often suppressing dissent when citizens complain about governments failing to respect people’s rights.

It is no coincidence that the United States is home to some of the world’s biggest and most important tech companies and simultaneously some of the world’s most lenient privacy legislation. We have allowed tech companies to get too big, and they have undermined efforts to improve privacy protections. In contrast, the European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”), which took effect in 2018 and is the most sweeping and muscular privacy law ever passed. It is the reason every website you visit now asks your consent to collect information on you (i.e., cookies) and can face stiff penalties for not respecting your wishes.

The GDPR is not the last but rather the first major step in bringing big tech to heal. Doctorow describes a thicket of legislation and policy that must be dismantled to peacefully wrest power from monopolies, saying it will be a long and difficult fight. There are a few steps that can make a difference in the near term though, which will be easier to enact while users are angry at big tech. Minor tweaks to contract law in a few key states—California, New York, and Washington at first, then Texas and Massachusetts for good measure—can prevent certain anti-competitive business tactics. Special Master oversight of companies as part of court settlements will also provide a neutral arbiter and power to watch over tech companies and leverage to ensure compliance.

However, interoperability legislation is the primary tool for dismantling big tech. The primary laws proposed to require this are known as the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching Act in the United States and the Digital Markets Act in the European Union. These laws are intended to break down the “walled gardens” of app stores and large platforms like Facebook and Amazon, which would allow smaller operators federated access through public gateways known as APIs. This would work a lot like email does now, with published standards ensuring that multitudes of operators all function together, even while big players like Google and Microsoft—who control roughly 25% and 10% of email accounts—provide attractive products that many people prefer for various reasons.

Experts often warn about surveillance capitalism, or how companies harvest our data and invade our private spaces. But Doctorow warns that a much darker future awaits us if we fail to act to regulate big tech monopolies now—“surveillance mercantilism: a fusion of state and commercial power.”  


Sources:, The Internet Con

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