Big Tech

The Power of Big Tech and Surveillance Capitalism

An Introduction to Big Tech’s Influence on Politics

In today’s interconnected world, a new and powerful player has emerged and exerted its influence on the political landscape: big tech. Big tech is a term used to describe the world’s most dominant technology companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. These companies have transformed the ways we interact with the world, generated trillions of data points about our actions, preferences, and behaviors, and arguably changed the nature of democracy. Moreover, they have created a new form of economic activity – surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism describes the way in which tech companies discovery the digital trace left by users (or personal data), extract it, and then use it to predict, influence, and control human behavior. With so much information at their fingertips – information civilization is facing an evolution. The power of big tech represents a brand-new frontier of influence and pressure on the democratic systems.

Exploring the Expansion of Big Tech’s Power

For instance, Cambridge Analytica, a controversial data analytics firm, sparked outrage when the news broke that it had harvested the personal data of over 50 million Facebook users during the 2016 United States Presidential Election. The scandal served as a turning point in public discourse around big tech’s handling of personal information and its effects on political power.

Silicon Valley, representing the heart of big tech companies, has been even accused of engaging in what Harvard business professor Shoshana Zuboff calls “big other surveillance capitalism”. Essentially, this represents the phenomenon where these firms exert their influence, imperceptibly steering the political conversation through targeted advertising and customization algorithms.

Additionally, Google and Facebook, along with other digital giants, have amassed an unparalleled concentration of economic wealth and digital technology power. Considering that their main economic staple lies in the exploitation of personal data, it’s clear to see that the digital age currently is shaped by the age of surveillance capitalism.

The Transversal Politics of Big Tech: A Nuanced Examination

Big tech is not just changing politics in the United States. Its influence reaches across geographical boundaries and political divides. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has more lobbying presence in the European Union than any other tech company. Facebook, Amazon, and Apple also have strong presences in Brussels, demonstrating the triversality of big tech’s political power.

The power of big tech also reaches into every corner of the world, from the towers of New York to the factories of Shenzhen. Whether it’s through Google’s search engine, Facebook’s social media platform, Amazon’s products and services or Apple’s iPhones – these companies have penetrated every layer and geography of society. Their influence on human behavior, social interactions, and even economic indices can hardly be overstated.

The Role of Data and Datafication in Big Tech’s Influence

At the heart of big tech’s dominance is data. Shoshana Zuboff, the scholar known for conceptualizing the term “surveillance capitalism”, has said that “big data is to surveillance capitalism what the factory was to industrial capitalism.” Big data, in other words, is the raw material that powers the technology companies’ business models. With the growth and expansion of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the ability to aggregate, process, and derive insights from vast quantities of data is crucial.

The datafication process transforms how we experience and understand the world. Our digital footprints – from our likes on social media, our internet searches, even our location – are constantly tracked, quantified, and analyzed. This allows for the extraction of patterns and the creation of predictive models for individual and group behaviors. Consequently, big tech can offer users more appropriate digital services, predict trends, and even influence user decisions.

Ethical Considerations: Big Tech and Data Sovereignty

Yet, the rise of data sovereignty – the concept that information which has been digitized is subject to the laws of the country in which it is located – poses an ethical quandary. While consumers benefit from the convenience of customized, data-driven services, they are often unaware of the extent of personal data surveillance done by tech giants. The control big tech wields over so much data brings forward questions of privacy, freedom, and control in the digital age.

Understanding the Dilemma of Consumer Data Ownership

The dilemma lies in the shared nature of user data. While originally created by the user, it is acquired, stored, and processed by the tech companies – leading to questions of ownership and a potential misbalance in power. As Shoshana Zuboff argues, surveillance capitalists were the first movers in commoditizing personal information, but we should have the last word about its deployment.

In contrast, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, expressed the opinion that people actually have complete control over their data on the platform. However, realistically, the issue of user consent in the age of surveillance and the usage of complex algorithmic models to manipulate consumer behavior has proven that data ownership is much more intricate and opaque.

Regulation and Oversight: Countering the Dominance of Big Tech

Recently, there has been an increasing push towards regulatory frameworks for big tech. Leaders, scholars, and activists have started challenging the de facto powers of tech companies, imposing checks and balances on their unchecked influence. Regulation is seen as a way to counterbalance the dominance of the tech giants and birth a new era of digital markets and services.

An example is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) implemented by the European Union in 2018. The regulation gives users the right to access, copy, and, if necessary, erase their personal data. It also restricts how companies can collect, store, and use that data. In classic market economies, this type of regulation brings balance – markets work best when consumers have good information and the ability to act on it.

Data sharing policies are also under scrutiny. In the U.S, The New York Times reported a secret agreement between Facebook and Microsoft’s Bing search engine, allowing Bing to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent. Such incidents spark discussions on the ethics of business models, private sector practices, and the responsibility tech companies bear in the information technology age.

A Look at Anti-trust Regulation and Data Sharing Policies

Anti-trust regulation attempts to limit the concentration of power in the hands of a single company or industry. In this framework, the logic of surveillance capitalism – the fight for the accumulation of user data and consequent market dominance – is inherently anti-competitive.

Many tech firms will argue that the barriers to entry in the tech industry are quite low, indicating healthy competition. Yet regulators and pundits argue that the defensive moves, like Google’s acquisition of YouTube and Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, have ensured the continued supremacy of the already entrenched tech giants.

Conclusion: Assessing the Future of Big Tech and Surveillance Capitalism

While the future at the new frontier of power remains uncertain, change is afoot. The balance of power, the battle between users and tech companies for data sovereignty, and whether change should be driven by regulators or innovators will all undoubtedly shape the future digital landscape.

In conclusion, the power of big tech and surveillance capitalism will remain a significant issue. A new consciousness about the impact of these forces on our lives, politics, and communities is growing. As we grapple with the implications of our digitized existence within the cyclopean scope of tech giants, the topic of surveillance capitalism and how it influences politics is a road we must tread cautiously.

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