‘Big Tech’-ville: Corporate domination in the 21st century

This is the text of my spring 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text has been slightly extended and links added.

‘Big Tech’ – the data-based platforms which control vast swathes of our online lives – has swallowed whole the grand gesture that the free gift of the internet was intended to be.

Such companies as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, and increasingly Netflix, are generating vast amounts of data about what we do online, with whom, and why. Capturing, analysing and then selling information based on the data trails we leave behind us as we go about our lives online is one thing; but it is their ability to analyse and aggregate that individual data which is key to the financial success of their model.

Now, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on whose information management system the world wide web is based – and who tweeted ‘This is for everyone’ from the stage of the London Olympics in 2012 – has got on board with a start-up called Inrupt. Inrupt’s aim is to re-establish individual ownership of our data, thereby putting the web back under individual control and killing the data surveillance model on which the platforms are based.

Pods

The concept that Inrupt is seeking to develop is ‘pods’ – personal online data stores – effectively a vault for our own data to which we alone hold the keys. We could give big tech companies the right to access that data to sell us services but, critically, they would not have the right to extract it or sell it on.

Whether Inrupt will be successful is an open question. But undermining established models based on what we give away will not be easy because it means confronting powerful interests. We ourselves have invested a lot of time and effort in building profiles in the process of which we have been careless about the value of our data. And our own data has little value unless and until it is aggregated.

If these are already big questions, there are even bigger ones about how such companies are coming to dominate our lives. The US state of Nevada is developing legislation for ‘Innovation Zones’, where tech companies would be allowed the right to impose taxes, create schools and courts, and deliver government services in return for their investment. (Freeports – cited as a benefit of Brexit – and the first bids for which closed in early February, might well end up working in a similar way.)

Amazon has set up a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination hub in its Seattle headquarters, with the aim of offering vaccinations to 2,000 local residents on the first day.

And the same company is to spend $2bn on building affordable new homes for its workers in the three US cities where its major employment hubs are located.

State failure

Amazon’s are not the altruistic gestures a first glance provides: few of its own staff are likely to be among vaccine priority groups; while its major employment hubs have been responsible for inflating local land prices as workers have arrived.

We have seen these things before, with philanthropists making money from industry and then using it to build homes and schools for workers. Some turned out better than others: the New Lanark founded by utopian socialist and co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen, for instance.

That we seem to be returning to such a model is, nevertheless, a damning indictment of state failure and, indeed, of state capture by big tech. That Google’s workers are coming together to unionise is a welcome sign of a fightback at that level. All of us choosing to regain control of our data is a next, vital, step in building the fight against a return to pre-welfare state capitalism.

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