In an article titled The Big Tech Extortion Racket in the September 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Barry C. Lynn discusses how much information Facebook and Google have on us and how their renting out this information to anyone willing to pay results in us being exploited. He says that by rolling back the anti-monopoly protections that had been in place, Congress has given them enormous power over the digital marketplace.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Bork, Richard Posner, and other neoliberal Chicago School legal scholars set out to overturn America’s antimonopoly regime, targeting the traditional prohibitions on discrimination that common carrier laws had established. Their scholarship later played a major role in the writing of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. In that bill, Congress simultaneously exempted internet platforms from any responsibility to police the content on their sites, and failed entirely to impose on them any requirement to provide equal and just service to all who depend on their networks.
As a result, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and other platforms were free to develop business models that treated every seller and buyer—every citizen—differently. These corporations exploited this license to the fullest, and have used their power to reorganize entire realms of human activity. Amazon, Google, and Facebook match individuals to specific shoes and clothes, specific restaurants and hotels, specific movies and music, specific jobs and schools, specific drugs and hospitals, specific sexual partners, and even specific books, articles, speakers, and sources of news.
These companies are the most powerful middlemen in history. Each guards the gate to innumerable sources of essential information, services, and products. Yet thus far no governmental entity in the United States has signaled any intention of limiting the license these corporations enjoy to serve only the customers they choose to, at whatever price they decide.
The power they have over us is derived from all the information they gather on us, and it is massively comprehensive.
In 2018, an Irish technologist named Dylan Curran downloaded the information Google had collected about him. All in all, Curran found, the corporation had gathered 5.5 GB of data on his life, or the equivalent of more than three million Word documents.
In addition, Curran discovered that Google keeps a detailed record of what events he attends and when he arrives, what photos he takes and when he takes them, what exercises he does and when he does them. And it has kept every email he has ever sent or received, including those he has deleted.
In an article, Curran describes in detail the mind-boggling amount of information that Google has on all of us and the ways they collect it. He provides links so that you can see for yourself everything you’ve searched on and deleted, all the apps you’ve used, your YouTube history, and so on. He also details the kinds of things that Facebook has on you. I hardly ever used Facebook and closed my account some years ago but I would not be surprised at all if they have found other ways to collect data on me.
He also points to the way all this data can be abused.
They also have every image I’ve ever searched for and saved, every location I’ve ever searched for or clicked on, every news article I’ve ever searched for or read, and every single Google search I’ve made since 2009. And then finally, every YouTube video I’ve ever searched for or viewed, since 2008.
This information has millions of nefarious uses. You say you’re not a terrorist. Then how come you were googling Isis? Work at Google and you’re suspicious of your wife? Perfect, just look up her location and search history for the last 10 years. Manage to gain access to someone’s Google account? Perfect, you have a chronological diary of everything that person has done for the last 10 years.
This is one of the craziest things about the modern age. We would never let the government or a corporation put cameras/microphones in our homes or location trackers on us. But we just went ahead and did it ourselves because – to hell with it! – I want to watch cute dog videos.
One thing that struck me is that 5.5 GB of data for each person is a helluva lot. No wonder they have vast arrays of servers to store all that data. It should not be surprising that these consume a huge amount of energy. How much? About 5 kWh per GB if it is stored in the cloud. It is far more energy efficient to store the data on your own computer but then it ceases to be portable and also one has to find alternate means of backing up.
A Carnegie Mellon University study concluded that the energy cost of data transfer and storage is about 7 kWh per gigabyte. An assessment at a conference of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy reached a lower number: 3.1 kWh per gigabyte. (A gigabyte is enough data to save a few hundred high-resolution photos or an hour of video.)
Compared with your personal hard disk, which requires about 0.000005 kWh per gigabyte to save your data, this is a huge amount of energy. Saving and storing 100 gigabytes of data in the cloud per year would result in a carbon footprint of about 0.2 tons of CO2, based on the usual U.S. electric mix.
Assuming that they have 5 GB of data on each person stored in the cloud, that creates a carbon footprint of about 0.01 tons of CO2 per year. For the entire US population of about 300 million, that works out to 3 million tons of CO2 per year, just to store everyone’s personal data.
Although I am not on any of the major social media platforms, I use the internet a lot and there is no question that to these big tech companies, my life is an open book.