In a world of infinite options, it can be disconcerting to know that everything you do online falls under just five big companies’ control. As Gizmodo operative Kashmir Hill painstakingly illustrates, the “big five” companies of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon have a strangle-hold on our devices that can be next to impossible to be free of. And, if that’s the case, what kind of freedom do we really have?
Freedom isn’t free
Ask anyone in the military; freedom comes at a price. With our political freedoms, it is the steepest price of all. But with our digital freedom, data is the cost. And right now, that cost is little more than handing over rights with the click of an “accept” button.
But what if Google or Facebook decide to charge us for their services? We can see with all the recent news about Facebook that this platform has considerable sway in our culture. So much so, in fact, that I would go so far as to say it has become the new public square. We don’t go to the center of town anymore to voice our opinions—we do it with data on our Facebook pages. If Facebook decided not to give you a voice anymore, where would you go to make your voice heard?
With just five companies at the helm of all our communications and the majority of our business output, it is more like we’ve entered a high-tech feudal system; we are simple serfs in the service of our digital overlords. If they so choose, we could be denied access to the public, and then we’re just screwed.
But what about regulation?
It’s true that setting up a governance protocol for these companies would at least make the big five more agnostic to its user base. However, that regulation could also force the hand of these companies to begin charging for their service. This would have significant ramifications on the amount of access we are already struggling to achieve.
The ease of use that the big five have given us makes it prohibitively complicated to switch to any other platform—there are countless compromises when doing so. But is this ease really worth the loss of freedom? And when Facebook and Twitter ban media companies because they deem their input as “inappropriate,” is our speech really free anymore?
Another way to look at it is that these companies could regulate themselves by being businesses rather than ethical coordinators of data. But that's asking too much of consumers to sift through mixed messages and value judgements based on advertising. Advertising which, shocker, is intended to manipulate your decision. Better would be to find a solution that will last. In other words:
The answer has to be sustainable
This is not going to be resolved anytime soon. The closest laws we have to anything like these platforms are over fifty years old, and every option presents its own set of unique challenges. But there is one thing we can do as individuals that will help put some parameters on the influence these five companies have over us: self-regulated usage.
Take an inventory of how much you rely on these platforms and devices for your understanding of the world, your connection to others, and your general knowledge. If you haven’t actually talked to your friends and family in more than a few months, it might be time to step back from these devices.
This may border on broken record in this blog, but the advice is sound. The more control these five companies have, the less we have as individuals. But if we take back some degree of control—gather our information the old-fashioned way—we limit the power of these overlords. Real communication will never be out of range for us. Face-to-face time will not go away. And, unlike data, these things are as sustainable as sunlight.