Today, the Internet is everywhere. Well over half of the planet’s entire population either likes to be on the Internet or has to rely on the web for business, work, and social engagement. People read the news, send notes to loved ones, birthday cards, do their job – increasingly via Skype and Zoom. Others seek answers to an urgent question. More than four billion people see the Internet as central to the way how they communicate, learn, study, go shopping, participate in the business, and organise themselves socially as well as politically.
Among the big five or what the French like to call GAFMA – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple – two corporations stand out: Google and Facebook. They are euphemistically called “social media”. In fact, they are hardly social. Instead, they are profit-making multinational corporations. In some countries, Facebook has become synonymous with the Internet – a dream of every monopolist. Simultaneously, Google occupies the largest share of all online searches. Search engines are a crucial source of information, and monopolist Google accounts for around 90% of all searches. These two monopolists complement each other. One holds the monopoly of Internet searches while the other holds the monopoly over social engagement.
As much as we like Google and Facebook, these Internet platforms come at a substantial cost. Both corporations apply what a recent Amnesty International report describes as a “surveillance-based business model”. It turns people – users – into sellable products who are sold to advertisers. Facebook and Google users get free services but are sold for a profit. It follows what the economists say – “There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch”. This means someone has to pick up the tab.
In the case of Facebook and Google, it is the advertisers who pay Facebook and Google to provide the services many like and rely on. In the language of managerialist CEOs, it is “we don’t monetize the things we create, we monetize users”. Click on to Facebook and Google, and you instantly become a product to be sold.
To perfect their business model, Facebook and Google seek to know as much about their product –you – as possible to sell advertisers what they want, namely a cohort for targeted marketing. It is the opposite of Coca Cola’s marketing. Advertisers don’t want what to target a massive amount of people who don’t use their product. To those, Coca ads are useless – a waste of money for Coca Cola.
Instead, advertisers want to target their ads more precisely. As a consequence of this system, a minute after you have searched for baby food on Google or Facebook, for example, the first ad for baby food comes to you. This is how it works. Except that Facebook and Google have created a gigantic surveillance apparatus to spy on their customers to be able to sell to advertisers what they most want. And this is where the problem comes in.
Facebook and Google collect a huge amount of data on what we search, what we look at, where we go on the net, who we talk to, what we say and write, what we read, what we buy, etc. This is not just an intrusion into the lives of billions of people globally, but an outright assault on privacy. The abuse of privacy is part – actually “the” core – of Facebook and Google’s business model. It engineers profits.
One of the most noted and perhaps most severe cases remains Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica. The scandal involved data from 87 million people’s Facebook profiles. These were harvested and used to micro-target and manipulate people for political campaigning. It was the application of Facebook’s business model to the political advertisements that supported Donald Trump.
Much of this can occur because Facebook and Google operate in a still mostly unregulated area or as Google CEO, Eric Schmidt once said, “the world’s most ungoverned space.” So much for the neoliberal myth that business is drowning in red tape. For Facebook and Google, there is no tape, never mind red tape.
Lacking regulation and oversight, Facebook and Google became giants. Google makes 84% and Facebook makes 98% of their profits from advertising. Appropriately, both corporations should be called marketing corporations and not social media. On the Internet, Facebook and Google hold a duopoly – a world that sounds so much nicer than what they really are: monopolies. Again, and again, reality disproves neoliberalism’s claim – there is a free market. In the world of Facebook and Google, there is no free market. To them, neoliberalism is nothing but a useful ideology to con the public, great public relations – nothing more.
Typically for monopolists, Facebook and Google have cartelised social networking and searching the Internet. Facebook moves towards the three billion-member margin, while Google runs 90% of all searches. For many, without Facebook and Google, there would be no Internet. To perfect their system, both corporations increasingly rely on state of the art artificial intelligence (AI). Additionally, both are serious hoarders when it comes to collecting and storing data. Facebook and Google hold very serious data vaults furnished by a speedy decline in the cost of data storage.
Beyond AI and data hoarding, Facebook and Google are ready to apply their monopoly to the next two Internet frontiers: the Internet of things (IoT) as well as understanding (read: entering) the human brain. In the not too distant future, Facebook’s Portal and Google’s Home Assistant will be able to link your iPad to your phone, your TV, your fridge, your heating system, and your automatic sprinklers. To pay for all this, Facebook has moved into a new global currency called Libra. In other words, your money is no longer safe and nor is your health. Facebook has been given access to patient data in the UK already. These are only the things we know about. But as Donald Rumsfeld who once said,
“there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know”.
In other words, there is an awful lot we do not know about Facebook and Google. Just as the author of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff says about Facebook and Google, “they know everything about us; we know almost nothing about them.” The same could be said about the CIA, Gestapo, KGB, MI5, NSA, Stasi, etc.
Facebook and Google also hoard metadata. This is data about data. For example, the data your computer saves behind each picture you store: date, time, location, etc. For Facebook and Google, this includes email recipients, location records, and the timestamp on emails and photos. In other words, Facebook and Google know about the juicy photos you received from your partner last night! The myth of privacy is only for those who still believe sending something via the Internet is not like sending a postcard – everyone can read it.
It is also for those who mistakenly believe “I have nothing to hide!” IT security experts like to reply, “give me your credit card and pin number and drop your pants”. Of course, we have all have something to hide. Private security experts talk about rings of privacy we have around us. These privacy rings become successively more private, the closer they become.
Much of this has very serious implications. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights suggests that when Facebook and Google analysed metadata, they create insights into people’s intimate behaviour, social relationships, private preferences, and identity. Unlike the CIA, Gestapo MI5, and Stasis, they are not so interested in your as a petit-bourgeois revolutionary, but as a consumer. And for that, it is helpful to predict patterns of behaviour. Facebook and Google know that you need contraceptives before you know it.
To understand our sexual identity, political views, personality traits, or consumption patterns, Facebook and Google use sophisticated algorithmic models. As the aforementioned, Eric Schmidt says, “we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about”. In that the old PR dream comes true: we cannot tell you what to think, but we can tell you what to think about. We make you think about Pizzagate and Hillary Clinton’s child pornography ring, and you vote Trump! It may not be that simple for some people, but propaganda has always worked for some. Beyond that always lurks the intrusion into privacy, violating three basic principles:
1) the freedom from intrusion into our private lives;
2) the right to control information about ourselves; and
3) the right to a space in which we can freely express our identities.
The surveillance-based business model of Google and Facebook undercuts each one of these three elements. The fact that Facebook and Google are harvesting, analysing, and most importantly, monetisation our data remains absolutely central to their business model. This has a grave impact on our three privacy rights. Not surprisingly, the above mentioned UN commissioner emphasises that Facebook and Google’s analytical power of data-driven technology carries very serious risks for people and societies. This can hardly be overestimated.
For Facebook and Google, this colonisation of privacy remains imperative. Facebook and Google use fine-grained, sub-conscious and personalised algorithmic persuasion technologies which significantly impact on the cognitive autonomy of individuals and their right to form opinions and take independent decisions. Machine learning is now able to scan Instagram posts for signs of depression more reliably than human reviewers. Facebook told advertisers, it could judge when teenagers were feeling insecure, worthless, or needed a confidence boost. Link this to TikTok, and you realise that they know more about your teenage daughter than you do.
Teenagers might like to appear on TikTok and Facebook, but that is likely to lead to social isolation. Facebook, despite the promises of Mark Zuckerberg, easily leads people to become isolated from one another as each individual engages with their own highly personalised experience of Facebook. This increases as Facebook provides information that is ever more uniquely tailored to them based on algorithmically driven profiling.
Such tailoring can easily manipulate people’s political opinions. It is the micro-targeting of political messaging, which is able to limit people’s freedom. Paradoxically, the more people express themselves on Facebook; the more Facebook creates and fosters a worldview that is actually inhospitable to pluralistic political engagement. It creates echo-chambers and polarises people into an us-vs.-them groups. These are rabbit holes of toxic content.
On the one hand, Facebook has already admitted that it is intentionally making people addictive. On the other hand, it systematically privileges extreme content, including conspiracy theories, misogyny, accidental misinformation and deliberate disinformation, as well as racism. This keeps people on their platforms for as long as possible. The sensational eliminates the rational. Perhaps Facebook more than Google, spreads anti-refugee sentiment, for example. It fosters anti-refugee sentiment online. This can easily lead to hate crimes. It is not surprising to see that in many countries and, in poll after poll, people overestimate the level of foreigners in their country. This was to be expected because of Facebook and Google’s algorithm privilege false and incendiary content.
In sum, their unique position as the two prime gatekeepers to the Internet has allowed Facebook and Google to have a significant influence over people. People are more or less stuck with two monopolists because for many leaving Facebook and Google is no longer a realistic option. Even when this means that Facebook and Google have quietly erased privacy, the unavoidable conclusion is that Facebook and Google can afford to abuse privacy because people have no choice but to accept their dictate.
This phenomenon is known as network effect – the more users a platform has, the more valuable it becomes. The value of Facebook and Google is undeniable. In the case of Facebook, it is even worse. Many people join Facebook because their friends are on Facebook. This makes it harder for them to leave. At a corporate level, Facebook and Google have created an area surrounding them in which competitors can no longer take root. It kills new entrees, and it kills competition. This is known as Facebook and Google’s kill zone.
As a fig leaf, the state can never grow tired of pretending to uphold one of neoliberalism’s fundamental ideologies, the free market. The liberal state also pretends to protect individuals. As a consequence, in June 2019, for example, the US Federal Trade Commission levied a record $5bn penalty against Facebook. At this time, Facebook was valued at $140bn. In other words, it is a fine of 3% of Facebook’s value – it’s a bit like a $3 speeding fine to ordinary people. Not surprisingly, when the Mickey Mouse fine was announced, Facebook’s share price went up – perhaps because the FTC did not impose a significant enough fine. A $3 speeding ticket is not a meaningful fine.
Even more laughable was a French court’s €50 million ($58 million) fine against Google. Google is a multinational corporation with a net worth of $280bn. A $50m fine translates into 50,000,000. Google’s $280bn represents 280,000,000,000. Put differently and not to confuse millions with billions; the French fine represents one 5,600th of Goggles value. Rest assured, Google was shaking with laughter. Inconsequential fines like these tell corporations one thing: carry on! There is no corporate criminality.
Fines against corporations of the size of quantum particles for which you need to Hadron Collider to find them in their corporate reports are possible, in part, because powerful lobbying has made these corporations untouchable. Corporate lobbying assures that Facebook and Google pay next to no taxes – unlike us – but it also assures such corporations that they get off the hook easily.
Like many other corporations, Facebook and Google run extensive corporate lobbying operations. This is part of the business just as it is for the Mafia to pay off a police officer or judge or both. Google spent more money than any other company to lobby the EU, followed by Microsoft, Shell and Facebook. In 2018, Google spent $21.2 million in lobbying the US Government (up 17.6%). By comparison, Facebook had spent $12.6 million (up 9.6%).
Apart from this, Facebook and Google also engage in propaganda – or public relations as it is called nowadays. Propaganda just sounds bad. As the Godfather of US public relations, Edwards Bernays once said,
When I came back to the United States … “propaganda” got to be a bad word because the Germans using it, so what I did was to try and find some other words, so we found the words “public relations”.
To make its “corporate propaganda work” (truth) or “engage in public relations” (PR-talk), Facebook and Google fund a wide range of think tanks to bolster their arguments and to make these arguments public. For example, both corporations, their lobbyists, and their think tanks foster the argument that tech companies cannot be regulated – utter nonsense, but it works.
In the end, two multinational corporations virtually run the Internet as monopolists raking in tremendous profits. The business model they use turns users into products. These are then sold to advertisers. Best of all, we are made to believe that these corporations are social media. In reality, they are monopolists that have made serious inroads into people’s privacy.
With the advent of artificial intelligence, this will only get worse. AI is most likely to advance the fastest and furthest on Facebook and Google. Both have the funding and, more importantly, the drive (read: profits) to push AI. Once they have linked AI to IoT (the Internet of things), Facebook and Google might become not only more powerful but also more indispensable. With that, an all-new Super-Google-Facebook-Big-Brother will be watching you!