As Congress takes on social media giants, Israeli expert advises caution

Shwartz Altshuler to ‘Post’: Real issue is who controls privacy and data’

House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law Chair David Cicilline speaks during a hearing on "Online Platforms and Market Power", in the Rayburn House office Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, US, July 29, 2020 (photo credit: GRAEME JENNINGS/POOL VIA REUTERS)
House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law Chair David Cicilline speaks during a hearing on "Online Platforms and Market Power", in the Rayburn House office Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, US, July 29, 2020
(photo credit: GRAEME JENNINGS/POOL VIA REUTERS)
US Congress members faced four of the most powerful people in the world of big-data and social media on Wednesday and demanded answers.
The four men were Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. For Bezos, who is estimated to be worth $116.9 billion and is the richest man on Earth, this was his first time facing Congress.
Led by Rep. David Cicilline, members of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law asked the four men a variety of questions, ranging in scope from how Facebook handles competition to how Google determines which emails end in the spam folder.
Congress is able to compel anyone in the US to appear and answer questions in front of it to determine which laws or actions should be taken. This power had been used, historically, to dismantle monopolies, fight organized crime and question Americans about their political beliefs.
The US has an excellent track record of keeping big firms in line, Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Information Age Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Jerusalem Post. She cited the Bell System breakup of 1982 and how Microsoft was not allowed to assume control over search engines when they were first introduced.
“These four companies seem to engage in different fields,” she told the Post. “Facebook connects people to people, Amazon connects people to products, Google connects people to information and Apple makes smartphones.” However, they all gather the personal information of those who use them, research it for their own needs and sell it to third parties.
“The line that sews together private data and competition is the most meaningful line in the early part of the 21st century,” Head of the Information Age Program at the Israel Democracy Institute Dr. Tehila Schwartz Altshuler told the 'Post.' (Credit: Israel Democracy Institute)“The line that sews together private data and competition is the most meaningful line in the early part of the 21st century,” Head of the Information Age Program at the Israel Democracy Institute Dr. Tehila Schwartz Altshuler told the 'Post.' (Credit: Israel Democracy Institute)
American scholar Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term “Surveillance Capitalism” to explain the meaning of this new economy, offered the example of how Facebook doesn’t “read” your posts but pays attention to your spelling and grammar. These indicators “tell it” more about you than you might think.
In Australia, it was leaked that Facebook told potential clients it knows the emotional cycle of 6.4 million young people, and is therefore able to guarantee its clients a near certainty of being able to sell their products to these users.
Zuboff further presented Pokemon Go as a real-world data-gathering test designed to find out how to digitally control the behavior of large groups of people and sell that to companies. For example, making sure that a fast-food restaurant is present during the game at a point when most members of the group are hungry.
Such secretive data-gathering processes are meant to create paths to bypass the user’s capacity to think and shape her or his own will. Regarding big-data companies, “the only thing they fear,” she told the UK’s Channel Four, “is the law.”
Shwartz Altshuler said that while privacy is a vital concern, another issue is competition. On Wednesday, Rep. Jerry Nadler confronted Zuckerberg over his decision to buy Instagram, claiming that Facebook was buying out its competitors. Zuckerberg didn’t deny this, but pointed out that the Federal Trade Commission agreed to the deal.
“When they buy out their competitors, they do two things,” Shwartz Altshuler explained, “they increase wages in the workplace, meaning smaller companies can’t compete with the salaries being offered, and they make sure the future of the technology bends in their direction.”
She pointed to how all four men presented Congress with a “Cinderella story” about how their companies overcame hardships and are essentially an American success story. She noted they were not above hinting to Congress that, should it curb their power, Chinese tech-giants may replace them.
According to Zuboff, in China, it’s clear who controls the data – the Chinese Communist Party.
PRIVACY ACTIVIST Jaron Lanier, who has deleted all of his social media accounts, explained that it is possible to imagine another way of doing social media.
“We could agree to pay them a monthly fee, as we do to watch Netflix, and gain our privacy back,” he told Channel Four. “Or we could decide as a society that social networks are a public right, like libraries.” Meaning, there won’t be a company selling your info to a third party, just like a library doesn’t sell your take-out list to a third party.
Rep. Gregory Steube asked Pichai why his congressional campaign’s emails to supporters were blocked or sent to the spam folder, to which the CEO of Google responded that “there’s nothing in the algorithm that has anything to do with political ideology,” CNN reported.
Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute Alan D. Abbey told the Post that the “Big Four” companies are also partly responsible for the decline of the public’s trust in fact-based reporting and the rise of so-called “fake news.”
“Tech companies don’t value journalistic ethics and practice,” he said: “They should assume some of that responsibility.”
For Shwartz Altshuler, such questions are not as important as the larger issues presented. She lauded Cicilline for being “extremely well prepared” for the event and said that, as dramatic as the hearing was, “the real issue is what Congress will recommend down the line.”
“The line that sews together private data and competition is the most meaningful line in the early part of the 21st century,” she told the Post. “The hand that controls it will have both wealth and immense power.”