When it comes to platform monopolies, there’s a weird libertarian myth about our ability as consumers to choose our fate. If you don’t like Facebook, goes this argument, just turn it off. For Facebook, Google, or Amazon, this myth goes, it is your individual choice whether to use them. And if you choose to use these services, you are complicit in giving them your data. As the Onion put it in a recent headline, “Nothing Stopping You From Deleting Your Facebook Account Right Now.” The article concluded, “at press time, sources told reporters they were unsurprised you were too fucking weak to pull the trigger.”
This is not uncommon, as our brains are wired to respond to this kind of stimulus, which is similar to slot machines in casinos. Google has thousands of engineers, and like other Silicon Valley technology companies in the “attention economy,” the company uses psychological techniques to addict us to its services so it can sell our attention to advertisers. This works on all of our brains and is especially dangerous to children.
Michael Turk’s story is instructive on how little power we as consumers really have to quit these services. Turk is a tech-savvy parent and a libertarian Republican. One of his teenage sons is addicted to his computer, and in particular, to online hangouts, video games, and YouTube. Turk went into his son’s machine and blocked access to his various online hangouts. But he couldn’t filter out YouTube because his son used Google’s Chrome browser, and Chrome makes that quite difficult. Turk is quite skilled with IT; by way of background, he worked in telecom, and he ran the Bush/Cheney reelection e-campaign in 2004. But even this expert couldn’t figure out how to block his child from accessing YouTube.
Eventually, Turk resorted to installing a different browser and restricting all Google products. But then he realized that his son’s school district has a deal with Google. His son cannot access his homework unless he goes through Google.com. Upon realizing this, Turk decided to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. This libertarian argued that the government must bust up Google because there’s too much power in Google’s hands.
Turk is right. Google has seven different products with more than a billion users. The company’s reach is so powerful that it can not only work to addict us and move our attention where it wants, but it can integrate its search into our browser, the maps of our physical world, and our news. Because of deals with school districts, it can, and does, interpose itself between parents and children. And these are just its consumer-facing aspects; in the core infrastructure of the internet, in the online advertising market that structures how citizens engage in commercial communications with one another and how and whether we pay for news, art, and culture, Google and Facebook have become the ultimate regulators.
Facebook, Google, and Amazon all have this level of reach, in ways you see and in ways you don’t. Facebook, for instance, has tracking software on 35 percent of the top 1 million visited websites. For Google, that number is 85 percent. They collect data on you through any legal means, not just your voluntary submissions—which are required to use the omnipresent services these companies provide—but from invisible tracking technologies like embedded pixels, dropped cookies, GPS technology, device fingerprinting, or even from tracking your friends.
Even if you don’t have a Facebook account, Facebook still has pictures of your face. They get information on you from retailers, credit bureaus, and anyone who is selling. Amazon may or may not be your shopping destination of choice, but it does fulfillment, runs websites, and engages in logistics for a host of third parties at which you probably do shop. Regardless of whether you think you use their services, these companies have you as their user.
Even if you or I could log off, their power extends far beyond each of us individually. They shape our culture, as we are finding with Google and Facebook immediately being used to spread conspiracy theories in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, or Amazon suggesting combinations of bomb-making material to customers through its recommendation engine. Their business model pulls revenue from authors and journalists—and determines whose work will be promoted and read. Newspapers change their layouts and journalistic priorities to suit Facebook’s algorithm, changing the very character of the information that our society and decision-makers depend on.
Politically, the power of Silicon Valley’s tech monopolists is overwhelming. Mark Zuckerberg is musing on what kinds of information about an American election he will deign to give U.S. government officials and deciding which kind of transparency policy he will design for American politics. Mayors are throwing themselves at Jeff Bezos’ feet to get Amazon’s second headquarters, even as Amazon wipes out their local retail tax base; one place in Georgia is offering to change its name to the “City of Amazon.” These companies lobby D.C. heavily and spread plenty of money around think tanks and academia to ensure that their interests are served and that opposing voices are filtered out.
Ultimately these institutions are not just businesses; they are social infrastructure, like the electric grid, the water supply, the cable company, or airlines. Even people who don’t fly benefit from, say, a convention business in their city or other commercial activity that comes with being connected to air travel and air-freight networks.
Yet people treat big tech as if you, as a consumer, have a choice. No one ever said that if you dislike American Airlines, you should just choose not to use air travel. Or that if you bristle at being overcharged by a cable company, you should forgo access to the internet. People can distinguish between the power of a monopoly and the product that someone has monopolized. Yet when it comes to platform monopolies, there’s a stubborn libertarian myth—that has found substantial support among liberals and conservatives alike—that the consumer is king and we are, therefore, complicit in the choices that tech titans are making for us.
Mark Zuckerberg used to call Facebook a “social utility,” and he was right about that. It is a caretaker of the social grid, the database of your relationships that it structures for its benefits. Google is a caretaker of your search data, which again, it structures for its benefits. Even the premise that we should have to choose, as consumers, to not get access to our social relationships or our search data, is outrageous. There are many people who need Facebook to communicate with family or friends. That doesn’t make the relationships those people have with each other Mark Zuckerberg’s property. Yet we act as if we as individual consumers have a real choice when the options are to operate according to Mark Zuckerberg’s rules or to forgo contact with our friends and family. That’s not consumer choice; that’s blackmail.
The reason this consumer myth is being peddled is to protect lucrative monopolies that are worth hundreds of billions of dollars to their stockholders and officers, who would rather preserve their wealth and power at whatever social cost. What the consumer myth suggests is that politics, or collective action to impose public rules, is just an excuse for personal weakness, and therefore illegitimate. This psychological posture is very similar to the one that foreclosure defense attorneys told me about during the financial crisis, when the feeling of shame so overtook people who were being abused by their bank that they didn’t feel like they deserved their due-process rights: Shame on you for losing your house, went the myth. Today, the myth is shame on you for needing a search engine or social network or a place to buy a book.
Facebook, Google, and Amazon are among the most valuable companies in the world. If consumers could just walk away on a whim, they wouldn’t be very valuable, would they? In Europe, the myth of consumer choice on the internet isn’t as strong, and so the European Union is choosing a different path from our model of allowing this social infrastructure to operate at the whim of tech oligarchs. The EU is imposing a privacy regime that says that if a company wants to use your data to target you with ads, it has to ask you permission first. And it can’t deny you access to its “free” service if you don’t give consent. This is a way of saying that your relationship with your friends, family, or a publisher of a newspaper isn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s property to do with as he pleases.
Neither Google nor Facebook has shown the willingness to oversee what is on its network for purposes beyond their own profit, which has allowed for a lot of bad actors—from political propagandists to financial scam artists to terrorists—to cause harm. Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Justice need to start holding these companies accountable both for the immediate harm that they cause and for their larger and more damaging effect on American civil society.
The effort to control tech monopolies needs to begin with a map of how they operate so that we can figure out what pieces to spin off. For instance, Google’s ability to vertically integrate search, YouTube, and Chrome makes its deals with schools far more pernicious than they would otherwise be. The dominant platforms should be regulated so they are neutral in how they operate, rather than favoring content or services from their own portfolio.
We need investigations by government regulators, legislators, and antitrust enforcers to bring much-needed information about their operations to light. Regardless, this myth that we as individual consumers can escape from these all-encompassing commercial and surveillance titans must end. It is time, in other words, to stop thinking like consumers, and start thinking like engaged citizens.
Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Open Markets Institute.