Google, Facebook, Amazon and other internet giants are pushing the world away from freedom of speech, privacy rights, economic opportunity and political dissent and toward unfettered monopoly capitalism, says Matt Stoller, policy director at the Open Markets Institute.
Where are things heading?
He points to the nightmarish scenario of Chinese journalist Liu Hu.
Hu had been exposing corruption for years. He was hassled with regular fines and forced mea culpas by the authoritarian government. But kept on keeping on.
“One day in 2017, Hu logged onto a travel site, but couldn’t book a flight because the site said he was ‘not qualified,’” writes Stoller. “Soon he discovered he was blocked from buying property, using the high-speed train network, or getting a loan. And there was nothing he could do about it. His rights to essential goods and services were now circumscribed through an algorithm designed to discriminate against the 7.5 million people on China’s ‘Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement’ list.”
It’s the birth of the Chinese “social credit score” system, the one whose goal is to rank China’s 1.4 billion people before too long.
“Conceptually, it is not that different from a financial credit score in the U.S. But the social credit score includes things like political outspokenness, shopping habits, friends, travel habits, and anything the authorities want to encourage or discourage,” writes Stoller. “This score then fine-tunes your access to essential social goods based on a discriminatory algorithm.”
Discriminatory algorithms for political outspokenness?
He sees government paving the way for way less freedom and more monopoly control – not just in China, but in the U.S.
He points out what followed in the wake of the FCC abandoning rules preventing internet providers from discriminating between different forms of data flows through their networks.
“The result is that interfering with the flow of information, rather than facilitating it, will become a lucrative new business model for telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast,” he says. “Days later, a federal judge rejected the government’s attempt to block AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner, a giant media conglomerate that owns TV channels like CNN and HBO. The government argued that the combined company would be too powerful, and able to discriminate against rivals. The judge disagreed. He essentially said Google, Facebook, and Amazon have now become so powerful that the only way AT&T can compete is to bulk up its own power in a marketplace of goliaths. Within days of that decision, a bidding war between Comcast and Disney broke out over 21st Century Fox.”
It’s a variation of the old “too big to fail” argument. Now it’s “too big to squeeze.”
“The reason these companies want to merge the pipelines of the internet with the content that flows through them is simple: They want to build detailed individual profiles of internet users – how they browse the web, what they watch,” writes Stoller. “If there’s any doubt that’s the reason, consider the judge’s own words in allowing the AT&T deal. The merger allows AT&T to imitate ‘highly successful, data-driven entities’ like Google, he said. To underscore the point, this week AT&T bought yet another company, AppNexus, which was one of the largest remaining digital advertising marketplaces not already controlled by a Silicon Valley giant.”
There’s more, Stoller says. On Monday, he points out, the Supreme Court, in a case involving credit cards, issued a decision that will effectively immunize tech platforms and other networked systems against antitrust scrutiny.
“All these decisions are dangerous on their own,” he says. “Together they show how centralized control of the internet could enable the possibility of automated discrimination on the level of the individual citizen. Which is exactly the power we are seeing deployed in China, even if the politics are different.”
Who’s behind all this?
“All of this is being driven by the web giants – Amazon, Google, and Facebook – who use their power over shopping, search, and social networking to discriminate in favor of their own products and content,” reports Stoller. “Amazon has built a massive manufacturing business by privileging its own private-label products, like Amazon batteries, over rival brands sold on its site. Google does the same thing, using its heft over search and maps to privilege its own products and services.”
“What these decisions collectively mean is becoming clearer – soon, all information production and distribution will increasingly be created for the profit of the web giants, or it will not be created and distributed at all,” he says. “Media executives are now saying that within a few years it is likely that every major content company will be owned by a tech or telecom platform.”
That’s why all the other guys are emulating Google, Facebook and Amazon. It’s not sustainable, says Stoller.
“We are now in a totally unregulated world of lawless web giants who operate as the core infrastructure for our society,” he writes. “They can use their data and power to discriminate and exploit, and the strategy now for companies like AT&T is to emulate them, or die. And the deep links that intelligence agencies have with these giants suggest this power can, with a flip of a few switches, be easily weaponized by the state.”