Blurred Lines: State Power, Tech Giants and their Omnipresent System of Surveillance
During a live hearing conducted before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday July 29th, four of the world’s most powerful tech titans testified at an antitrust hearing titled: ‘Online Platforms and Market Power: Examining the Dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.’
In a session which lasted for five and a half hours, members of the United States’ Congress asked the four CEO’s grueling questions which echoed many concerns which the public has been vocal about over the past several years. Congressman Jamie Raskin, representing Maryland’s 8th district began his statement by invoking the analogy of unscrupulous business practices of a past century: “in the 19th century we had the robber barons, today we have the cyber barons.”
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai appeared together for the first time before Congress, (Jeff Bezos for the first time), while defending their positions from remote locations. House Judiciary Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee Chair, David Cicilline opened the hearing by stating that the comprehensive “investigation has been bipartisan from the start.” He also noted that each of the tech titans “uses its control over the digital infrastructure to surveil other companies, their growth, business activity, and whether they pose as a competitive threat.”
Surveillance was a key concern throughout the hearing, with several members of the congressional committee warning the company executives about their harvesting of and selling people’s data without the public having a choice to escape their control. “As gatekeepers of the digital economy,” the Chair remarked, the four tech companies “represent the powers of a private government.”
Although the need for monopolies to be properly regulated and held accountable was echoed by the committee, it is equally important to summon a statement from the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, who during the hearing explicitly admitted that, “we routinely collaborate with law enforcement and intelligence agencies and are able to (sometimes) identify threats coming from other countries before governments are even able to.”
A 2019 Amnesty International report on Facebook and Google’s omnipresent system of surveillance warned that it posed as a systemic threat to human rights in which users are “constantly tracked across the web and in the physical world as well.”
To get a summary of the types of data collected on users with a Facebook account, click on the settings and privacy menu and scroll down to settings. All the way towards the bottom you will encounter the ‘Legal and Policies’ feature of Facebook. Click on Data Policy. This guide describes the information and content you provide which is collected by the social media platform to support Instagram, Messenger and other products and features offered by Facebook.
Facebook collects information not only on how you use their products, or view and engage with the people/accounts you interact with, but also the type of content you view and the frequency and duration of your activities. This all pervasive approach towards collection takes on another controversial form; harvesting massive amounts of data from the global South, which according to the Amnesty International report represents a lucrative market, “largely through the potential for expanded access to data.”
In Surveillance Valley, published in 2018, the author Yasha Levine argues that Amazon, Google, Facebook and other respected names from Silicon valley are all integrated with various intelligence agencies. In 2013, Amazon signed a $600 million contract with the CIA to run its cloud computing and storage services. Around the same time, Edward Snowden a contractor with Booz Allen, blew the whistle on a secretive program known as Prism, which was illegally collecting the data of American citizens. Verizon, an American phone company was supplying the National Security Agency (NSA) with the comprehensive telephone metadata of millions of its customers.
Although the congressional committee highlighted several recurring problems, some have argued that the tech antitrust hearing was mere political theatre. Jessica Melugin, the Associate Director of the Center for Technology & Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute has written in a recent article that Google’s algorithm is set to produce the results it wants, as this is the company’s prerogative. “Since its search engine is its private property, Google is responsible for being profitable to its shareholders — to the benefit of everyone using its products free of charge,” — that its obviously not running “a search engine charity for its competitors.”
In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He faced nearly 100 legislators, some of them were people he had donated thousands of dollars to. Amazon likewise, has spent millions of dollars in campaign contributions.
Nevertheless, taking campaign donations did not stop the senators from asking tough questions. As Ms Melugin has pointed out, are the arguments against the tech firms convincing at all? Or is it all merely political theatre?
The good news is, the hearings are public, live-streamed and accessible to anyone who would care to spend the time to understand the lines of investigation, and the tremendous amount of information which is freely available in order to draw one’s own conclusions.