Technology companies and their products are a hegemonic presence in American life. Many of the most important innovations of the 21st century have been technological. However, this progress begot many social ramifications. In this article, Aden Siebel and Hava Parker discuss the government's role in curtailing the power of Big Tech.
As tech companies maintain their spot as economic and social powerhouses, questions continue to be raised about regulation and oversight. Opponents of this regulation claim that it will stop valuable progress, halting an innovative field that does fine on its own. But with constant scandals and increasingly difficult questions about fairness and influence, it’s important to decide the direction and scope of regulation. With companies like Facebook gathering and selling the millions of Americans’ data and supposedly impartial algorithms perpetuating racial discrimination, it’s time for the government to make sure that these companies respect the rights of their users . With proposals to introduce new data privacy laws and reinstate net neutrality, there are concrete steps that can be taken to begin tech regulation . The huge influence of these companies, increasing public mistrust, and mounting ethical issues all mean that immediate regulation is vital to the future of technology in America.
Silicon Valley is quickly creating powerful economic and social forces with little to no oversight. Tech companies are the largest in the world, and their vast market power is only growing . However, their quick rise to the top has meant lagging regulation and a field that still isn’t fully understood. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos are able to accrue vast amounts of wealth while their company continues to mistreat their workers and attempts to hold taxpayer dollars hostage . Tech companies also continue to amass social and political power. A study in Nature revealed the increasing power of platforms like Facebook to influence political behavior of its users . Social media’s widespread use and importance in society gives these sites significant influence over culture and public perception, but this impact often goes unnoticed. With the growing issue of Russian interference in the election, largely through targeted Facebook ads, we must be aware of the political, social, and economic sway that these companies have over the American public. Considering these companies’ complete inability to regulate themselves, allowing this influence to go unchecked is foolish, .
The American government’s continued inaction on regulation reflects a disturbing disconnection with the opinions of the public. Public polling shows that although people support technological growth as a concept, their support of companies is waning . Most of this growing mistrust is focused on companies like Facebook that have found themselves at the center of various scandals. Although these results are limited, they show that repeated scandals and ethical infringements by tech giants haven’t gone unnoticed by the general public. Furthermore, the federal government isn’t listening to its constituents on the issues of technology. A 2017 poll shows that 80% of voters support net neutrality, but the FCC stripped away those rules . Although there was major dissent against this decision both online and by some Democratic lawmakers, the FCC went ahead without good reason and discarded one of the last factors equalizing the internet . Without these regulations, companies like Comcast and Verizon can have even more control over the freedom and information that the internet represents. Online access is no longer an impenetrable or unimportant issue—it is a basic necessity, and lawmakers need to realize this before these companies can cement even more control over a fundamental part of the modern world.
"Online access is no longer an impenetrable or unimportant issue—it is a basic necessity, and lawmakers need to realize this"
Tech companies have also been the center of a plethora of ethical scandals, many of them caused by a lack of oversight and desire for quick profit. In 2018 alone, these scandals included Cambridge Analytica using Facebook to collect the data of over 50 million users without knowledge or consent, Google’s $5 Billion fine for Android’s dominant position in the EU, and a woman being killed by Uber’s self-driving car . Although it's not certain that these could have been stopped by any kind of government intervention, core issues with the role of technology reveal the need for further investigation. Investigative work by ProPublica has revealed deepset racial bias with widely used algorithms to determine criminal recidivism rates and car insurance costs . This is especially troubling, as the companies and organizations using these algorithms weren’t even conscious of this bias. These issues were only revealed because of exhaustive work by outside journalists. Without an outside standard holding them accountable, these companies had no reason to look into the possibility that their supposedly impartial algorithms were rank with racial prejudice. It’s impossible to even know how widespread this issue is if these companies continue to cling to secrecy. Companies should not be allowed to rely on a lack of technological savvy among lawmakers and the supposed impartiality of computer technology to create biased systems.
It’s time to stop being naive about technological progress and put our foot down. With the continued growth and continued scandals of American tech companies, the myth that unrestricted progress is a solution for an ideal industry is getting old. It’s not that these companies are all evil. They form an important part of our society, but they’re also extremely powerful and seem to be unwilling to examine or regulate themselves. Although our government seems unable to understand or address technological issues, this can’t be an excuse anymore. We’ve been moving too fast and breaking too much, and the consequences can no longer be ignored.
In recent years, the assimilation of digital property into our individual identities and estates has resulted in a certain degree of culture shock. Most specifically, it raises new questions about privacy versus national security. Discussions and debates over topics like PRISM (a governmental surveillance program infamously unveiled during the 2013 Snowden leaks) and the ethics of providing the government with security backdoors continue, over and over again, to bring these issues to the forefront of modern discourse. Though the intricacies of each case may change, a few central questions have remained constant: Should the American government have any access to citizens’ private data (or, near-equivalently, to the technology firms that host/grant access to that data)? If so, how much access should it have?
Although there is no doubt that such companies have begun to command impressive sway over the general population (and, as such, shouldn’t necessarily have entirely free rein) there is still much to be said for the right to privacy. In the modern age, one’s digital data has become inseparable from the rest of one’s personal estate. To that end, any digital information under an American citizen’s name must be protected, which has important ramifications on industry control. Consider that the technology industry has thrown itself into cloud/information storage over the last few years; in 2017, the cloud storage market was worth approximately $31 billion, but is estimated to be worth nearly $90 billion come 2022 (at a compound annual growth rate of 23.7%) . As our lives become more digitized, and as enterprise continues its march into internet cloud-based databasing and new avenues of providing services, this figure will only continue to grow.
"In the modern age, one’s digital data has become inseparable from the rest of one’s personal estate"
Sources and Notes
Featured Image Source: "Apple CEO Tim Cook" by Mike Deerkowski — Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons — https://flic.kr/p/bWmqBT
 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/technology/facebook-cambridge-analytica-explained.html, https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing
 http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/03/democrats-introduce-bill-to-reinstate-net-neutrality.html, https://phys.org/news/2019-01-congress-big-tech.html
 https://www.forbes.com/sites/adammillsap/2019/02/15/lessons-from-amazons-decision-to-cancel-new-york-city-headquarters/#3bcc27273548 https://www.newsweek.com/amazon-drivers-warehouse-conditions-workers-complains-jeff-bezos-bernie-1118849
 https://www.axios.com/exclusive-poll-facebook-favorability-plunges-1522057235-b1fa31db-e646-4413-a273-95d3387da4f2.html https://www.geekwire.com/2018/americans-believe-tech-companies-regulated-like-news-publishers-survey-finds/
 https://www.businessinsider.com/cambridge-analytica-trump-firm-facebook-data-50-million-users-2018-3 https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/9/17956892/google-android-european-union-decision https://www.wired.com/story/uber-self-driving-crash-arizona-ntsb-report/
 https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing https://www.propublica.org/article/minority-neighborhoods-higher-car-insurance-premiums-white-areas-same-risk