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A broker reacts while trading at his computer terminal at a stock brokerage firm in Mumbai, India, February 1, 2020. REUTERS
A broker reacts while trading at his computer terminal at a stock brokerage firm in Mumbai, India, February 1, 2020. REUTERS

THE world wide web is a free-for-all space. And the big five tech giants — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft — want to keep it that way for as long as they can. To be fair, they do change their tune when a crisis hits them every now and then.

Like it happened when data on more than 50 million Facebook users was shared with Cambridge Analytica in 2014. Otherwise, their argument is: regulations are only good for the brick-and-mortar world, not the cyberworld.

Their logic, warped though it appears, is this: laws kill innovation. Little surprise, Facebook fired the first salvo at self-regulation last week. It is setting up an “independent” content-oversight board. All paid for by Facebook. Understandably, many are calling the move as Facebook’s figleaf.

That the tech giants need to be regulated is quite clear. Consider the size of the big five. They are giants by any measure. In cyberspace, the bigger you get, the mightier you become.

Size seizes. Numbers count too. The fewer the players, the greater the dominance. Take the case of data computing. Its niche space is carved up by just four: Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google. Cloud computing isn’t different either: Google, Amazon and Microsoft. And smartphone operating systems? Here a pair decide everything: it is Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android.

Facebook must be told Internet governance isn’t all content oversight. There are two other important things: use of data and artificial intelligence (AI). But first, Facebook’s attempt at content oversight.

The idea for the board itself — it was first floated by Zuckerberg in 2018 — is an indicator of how slow the mechanism is going to work. A year plus has gone by and the board is yet to hear its first complaint.

Imagine this. If the two billion Facebook users around the world — and that is how many there are — were to take up a complaint each, how long will it take the board to resolve them? Expect Facebook to limit what gets to the board. And perhaps even what the board wants done.

To consumers, how these tech giants mine and use data is of greater concern. Truth be told, data is money. This is why the tech titans are mining it to glory. All by stealth and for free. A Financial Times investigation in November last year showed how bad it has become.

In a report dated Nov 18, the English financial daily said numerous healthcare websites were allegedly sharing sensitive user data with big technology platforms, such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Oracle and a number of smaller companies. Neither the patients nor the doctors were notified.

How the tech titans use AI is equally worrying the billions who subscribe to their products and services.

Let’s take the least menacing example of AI: social manipulation. As illustrated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, AI can target a specific outcome as it was alleged to have been done in the 2016 American presidential election and the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum.

All this points to one thing. Self-regulation isn’t the right way to rein in the tech titans. National regulation is. If we want to end Internet disconnect, that is.

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