All Hands on Deck: Government Intervention in Data Privacy

Capitalism is so embedded in the way in which our modern North American society operates, impacting all of the transactions and interactions that we have with companies. Big corporations worth billions of dollars have such an incredibly strong sway in what happens in the marketplace, that it seems nearly impossible for an individual or small group to lobby and influence how they do business. In order to gain hold of our data privacy and stop the momentum of surveillance capitalism, change will need to happen at the institutional level. We need to get the government involved.

The data privacy issue continues to grow as more and more details come out about the seemingly endless data that is able to be mined about us right down to our exact travel path on a daily basis (plus our search history, files of all kinds from texts, photos and voice messages, and the list goes on). Unfortunately, I am not the slightest bit surprised when confronted with the amount of information that tech giants like Google and Facebook collect about us. The technology that we use in our daily lives (phones, smart watches, apps, social media platforms etc.) is so interconnected, easily trackable and constantly backed up to servers. We appreciate these services when they help us access information that we want to store like our emails and anything we choose to put into the cloud like documents and photos. We also want instant access to the data of our friends and family (and sometimes even strangers) through our social media accounts and we willingly input data into these services on a daily basis. Our input helps these tech companies create ever more robust platforms that continually learn more and more about us.

What we are much less comfortable with is the data that we don’t see and how that data is ultimately being used. For the most part, our data is being used for capital gains. When it comes to data collection, I believe it’s important to remember that we as users are not really the ultimate customers of services like Facebook and Google. Yes, they have to deliver on some promises in order for people still want to use their services, but ultimately these tech giants are serving the needs of advertisers rather than the readers, browsers and users of their platforms. The bigger they get the more advertising dollars they can bring in.

The tech giants are out to dominate their industries and claim the lion’s share of their markets and they do so by cashing in on more new tech. Giant corporations scoop up new ways of gathering data and tracking users by investing in their own research and development or by buying smaller tech startups (see a list of acquisitions that Facebook has made here) who have tapped into something of interest. Because of their sheer financial power to dominate over other businesses and bully the market, the government is required to step in. 

It is quite interesting to note that even Mark Zuckerberg himself feels that it’s important for data to be regulated, but the big issue remains, how? There are a few examples of cases where the the government has stepped in, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act which was passed in 2018. The three major tenants are:

1. You will have the right to know what information large corporations are collecting about you.
2. You will have the right to tell a business not to share or sell your personal information.
3. You will have the right to protections against businesses which do not uphold the value of your privacy.”

It’s hard to tell presently how well this is working in the state of California, but it shows that passing this type of law is something that people are very interested in doing (even if the big tech giants strongly opposed the bill). But it is these tech giants, and their seemingly unlimited funds, who need to be stopped and the government can’t let them just throw bunch of money around to try to stop the regulations.

We still have a lot of work to do in Canada as the Privacy Commissioner stated that they don’t have the funding they need to adequately protect Canadians against privacy issues. We as citizens need to get more involved to keep pushing our law makers. A new privacy law now ensures that Canadian companies have to let their customers know when their data has been leaked, but what recourse do we have once it’s been leaked? That clearly isn’t good enough.

It’s very easy to feel disenfranchised when you see that corporate giants like Amazon are buddies with the government bodies like the Department of Justice for example, but it is still important that we continue to push law makers for better protection. In reference to this Mike Shatzkin article (via hypothes.is), SFU Master of Publishing student Jaiden Dembo stated “If law can be put in place to help these behemoths grow and dominate the market, then the opposite can be true as well.” Though there is a lot of muddy water to sift through when it comes to data protection and change will take time, it’s something that’s worth fighting for.

 

Everyone vs. Google

Taking a company to court like Google to fight a fair dealing violation would take time and money, that many small to medium sized companies don’t have. Giants tech monopolies like Google have so much power that they can seem invincible and based on the fact that a fair dealing claim can only be resolved if it is taken to court and weighed in on by a judge, there are likely countless infractions that people and companies just haven’t been able to do anything about. Our system of fair dealing may be a bit flawed, let’s dig into one case to see what’s happening.

About Oracle

Oracle America, is one such company that decided to stand up to Google. It’s important to note however that  Oracle is definitely not a small company. It’s very large information technology firm with over 10,000 employees focusing on cloud software and automation. It makes sense that Google would have Oracle on it’s radar and is likely keeping a close eye on the systems that they are developing. One such API that Oracle created, must have caught Google’s eye because they started to use it without authorization. Let’s take a closer look at the Oracle America fair dealing case versus Google.

The case: Oracle American, Inc. v. Google, Inc. 

In summary, the case took a detailed look at Google’s use of Oracles “Java API packages”. It was rules that Oracle’s APIs are protected under copyright law therefore the case went to court to decide whether or not Google used the API fairly. After some back and forth, the final court ruling was in favour of Oracle, and Google faced the damages.

I agree with the courts ruling based on an assessment of the four factors of fair dealing. In the words of the Stanford case summary, “Google merely copied the material and moved it from one platform to another without alteration, not a transformative use.” I cannot comment on the exact usage quantity or substantiality of the work that was used given the details available about the case but I believe the other factors of fair dealing make a compelling case on their own especially when we look at the effect on the market. Though the case summary does not go into specific detail about the “actual and potential” damage that this case of copyright infringement entails, one could venture that Google is stealing market share from using the API without authorization; neglecting to pay for the use of the API would hinder Oracle’s sales; and depending on the function of the API itself it could give Google a competitive advantage in certain areas of the market which again could lead to a loss of market share to Oracle.

Implications

Though I agree with the ruling of this case when it comes to looking at the facts and ruling based on the established fair dealing standards, there are  implications that are worth discussing.

If foundational role of copyright law is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” than this case may be an example of a failure of the system. As the wikipedia page for this case outlines, the ruling of this case could impact the compatibility between interfaces and software. API’s are generally a way for systems to interact and stopping their fair use could pull innovation to a halt in the IT sector that has often relied on software being open source. Because of this ruling, developers may feel pushed to protect their API’s making them incompatible with other systems,

“moving away from the current trends in software development which have focused on improving interoperability between different services allowing apps to communicate with one another, creating more integrated platforms for end users.”

Though on paper the Oracle vs. Google case seems to have been rules fairly, I believe it warrants a larger discussion on our fair dealing and copyright systems to ensure that innovation and progress is not blocked for the sake of holding onto market share. Profit shouldn’t be the only driving force behind copyright protection. It’s hard to side with Google on this one, since they are so big it seems like they can step over anyone and use whatever they want in order to retain their position as one of the biggest tech giants in the world. But since each case cannot be take in isolation, this case sets precedent for the sharing of API’s among much more humble  companies. Would this fair dealing ruling service those smaller companies? I’m not sure if it would.

A Wild Goose Chase

As I put on my soothsayer hat and predict the decline of one of the “Big Four” companies, I feel a sense of irony as I use Google search extensively to come to my conclusion—Google could be the next one to fall. As things stand now, the four companies—Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, collectively own the virtual world that we live in. They look invincible to someone like me, who routinely prostrates herself in front of a browser window or mobile app to get through the day. If asked about the role these companies play in my life, I often flounder over the answer. Yes, I use technology on daily basis to accomplish work, socialize, explore, research, shop and express opinion. But on closer inspection I sense a measure of helplessness as my life gets documented without my explicit consent. I am left questioning the role these companies play in my life and vice versa.

I feel Google might meet their hypothetical doomsday within the next decade. Technology giants often meet their end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Take the case of Nokia, Kodak, and much closer to home—Microsoft, on its decline. These one-time market leaders are no longer the same. In the dynamic virtual world, things change extremely fast and it’s inevitable for companies to pivot in response to the winds of change. Google has been consistently investing in building its AI that intends to gather, rearrange and disseminate the collective knowledge of this world. They have set themselves a humongous task that is primarily financed by their ad revenues. Google enjoyed the first-mover advantage in the online advertising field. Ad revenue contributes to 90% of their earnings. The growth in the ad revenues has flattened over the years because of Amazon and FB in-app advertising. This exposes Google’s handicap. They have tried and failed to establish their presence in the retail or social media. Much of the ad revenue is directed through social media sites and Google is definitely feeling the pinch. They have been confined to browser window that serves as a transactional interface to connect other websites. This affords a very limited interaction between the user and Google.

Also, consider the coping mechanism we all develop to keep the noise of ads away. Advertising experts suggest that we are inevitably developing “Banner-blindness” that affords us to tune out the ads that pop-up in our browsers or mobile apps. Considering this and the fleeting affection we have for Google, which is sometimes an afterthought—a means to an end; what does it mean for Google?

The era of ruling on data alone is over. I feel that the next big move in the tech is context. How well do these companies know us? How well do the understand us? What value proposition are they offering us? What do we actually want? These are the questions all four companies need to deliberate on. But being on the back foot with their ad revenues, Google is vulnerable to becoming redundant in our lives. Unless they can provide a richer context to their searches and not merely peddle their partners, Google will lose their edge to their nearest competitor.

I agree that this theory has holes in it and can be countered in hundreds of ways. The arguments for and against are moot at this point. Because only time will tell how the cards fall. One can only predict the direction of the wind. And Google might have some turbulence ahead of them.

We’re not above this disruption heading for us either. Our interdependency on technology is growing day-by-day. Does the health of the big four companies affect us too? Maybe yes. Maybe no. It all depends on our perspective.

There’s a Zen Koan that goes like this: “If a man puts a baby goose in the bottle and feeds it until it is full-grown, how can the man get the goose out without killing it or breaking the bottle?”

The idea behind any Koan or riddle is to provoke doubt and question the status quo. The point is to sit with the sheer illogic of the situation; tearing at it with the logical part of your mind, until finally your mind surrenders further attempts to analyse and makes a leap into “pure consciousness”. In this case, the goose is your consciousness and the glass bottle is the mind. You might start with raking your head about ways to get the poor goose out of the confines of the bottle, until you realise in a moment of utter clarity that there is no goose; there in no bottle.

Similarly, we are the geese living in the shiny technology bottle bearing the label of the big four. We can either live in it or we can simply decide not to. If we stop being the goose, there will be no bottle. It’s that simple.

Anumeha Gokhale

 

GAFA isn’t going anywhere

I would like to preface my post by proclaiming that I do not think any of the “big four” will decline. Perhaps once upon a time this was a possibility, but by now they are so entrenched in society that they will never deflate. Although they compete with each other, GAFA is a starfish: there are many arms, but if one is cleaved from the body, it will eventually grow back. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are entwined and in many ways they depend heavily on one another.

Even though I do not believe GAFA is going anywhere,  I would like to speculate on what would happen if one of its members shrivels up. Let’s go back to high school physics class and recall what the Law of Conservation of Energy says: “energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed from one form to another” (Wikipedia 2018). If we lose one starfish arm of GAFA, it will not die. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple each have enough capital (physical, economical, geographical, social, etc.) that it has to go somewhere. My prediction is that if one member dies, its clout would be bought or otherwise absorbed somewhere else. I assume that it would be immediately snatched up by the one or more of the remaining members (strengthening them even more) or by one of the many companies watching from the bushes, just waiting for one of big guys to falter so something new can swoop in; take over; and profit, profit, profit.

Again, although I doubt it will happen, I still want to hypothesize on how the wheels of a GAFA decline might be put into motion. Privacy becoming more important to us is my biggest guess, although it still seems quite unlikely. As we saw in our class discussion, the majority of us aren’t too worried about what happens with our personal information gathered by big corporations. Even though our perspectives on this topic are shifting to be more complacent, there are obviously still people who oppose the blind signing away of our privacy rights as we are persuaded to do with websites such as Facebook. In 2012, “the Supreme Court of Canada [gave] the go-ahead to a class-action lawsuit against Facebook over privacy rights” (Fine 2017). If the government decides to get involved with how these websites prey on our privacy, we may see their demise, although it isn’t easy for the government to get involved in the first place. In Emerging Challenges in Privacy Law: Comparative Perspectives, the editors tell us

the core principles of data privacy law, which are aimed at limiting the collection and processing of personal data (including across national borders), are incompatible with the ‘open’ logic of the Internet. These tensions are especially apparent in Europe, where data protection is regarded as a fundamental right. It is therefore unsurprising that the current EU reform process, which is generally intended to strengthen EU data privacy law, has exposed the structural challenges applying the data privacy paradigm to the Internet, especially in relation to the definition of ‘personal data’ and the potential extraterritorial application of EU law (Witzleb, Lindsay, Paterson, and Rodrick 2014).

If we all decide that our privacy is more important than GAFA members allow for, I can see a potential uprising on the horizon as more and more people balk at what are currently typical privacy agreements. However, an uprising of this sort would have to be just that, an entire uprising, and with the attitude towards our online privacy leaning more to indifference, I don’t see anything radical happening anytime soon.


Further Reading/Articles Referenced

“Conservation of energy.” Wikipedia. January 24, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy.

Fine, Sean. “Supreme Court gives thumbs-up to privacy lawsuit against Facebook.” The Globe and Mail. June 23, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/supreme-court-gives-thumbs-up-to-privacy-lawsuit-against-facebook/article35444477/.

Ryan, Doug. “The Fall of the Titans: Why GAFA is Not Here to Stay.” The Huffington Post. July 20, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-fall-of-the-titans-why-gafa-is-not-here-to-stay_us_59711ae6e4b0545a5c30fead.

Witzleb, Normann, David Lindsay, Moira Paterson, and Sharon Rodrick, eds. 2014. Emerging Challenges in Privacy Law: Comparative Perspectives. Cambridge Intellectual Property and Information Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Accessed January 25, 2018. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107300491.

Apple: The First to Fall?

After much deliberation and moderate amounts of research, I have selected Apple as the first to fall.

Compared to the other three tech giants (Google, Amazon, and Facebook), Apple, while still exceptionally innovative, is not as ahead of the curve as they used to be. Once known for boundary-pushing products consumers didn’t know they needed, they now maintain the status quo by releasing new iPhones and Macs every year. Compared to the other major tech companies, they are much more stagnant.

Apple is valued at $869bn and was founded in 1976 (a full 18 years before Amazon, valued at $566bn), and so their early starter position has been of benefit to them, notably in terms of value of their company (the richest in the world) and in consumer loyalty. So while they have some advantages that will sustain them if business begins to falter, I believe that they are still very susceptible to changes brought about by the more innovative competition and changing consumer behaviours.

The Competition
Unlike Amazon (the e-commerce company), Google (the knowledge internet company), and Facebook (the social internet company), Apple does not have a monopoly on the smartphone or computer industry. Phone brands, such as Samsung and Nexus, or laptop brands, such as Lenovo and Dell, are catching up to Apple in terms of product quality and still have a significant share of the markets (while Apple has stuck to their corner of the market doing what they do best). With Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple was didn’t just make the best products, they made products no one had ever seen before. In recent years, it could be argued that they are no longer the visionary company they once were. Instead, they make small tweaks to their products to make them even more exclusive to the Apple brand, such as different jacks for chargers and headphones.

Meanwhile, Google, Amazon, and Facebook are doing everything they can to stay at the forefront of innovation. Google has all sorts of projects going on, from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence. Amazon plans on piloting cashier-less stores and drone home delivery. And Facebook buys up the competition—including the very popular Instagram and WhatsApp companies. Instagram is more popular than the original Facebook platform with Gen Z, and WhatsApp is popular in countries outside of North America. By acquiring the competition, Facebook is not only eliminating the competition but also capitalizing on multiple growing markets.

And similarly, Amazon is also slowly encroaching on Apple’s products. As Scott Galloway said in an article about how he expects all of the four companies will disappear within 50 years, “The most innovative tech hardware of 2016, it wasn’t the Apple Watch or it wasn’t the Apple Pods, it was the Amazon Echo. If you look at where they are competing against Apple in voice, Siri versus Alexa, Alexa is putting a serious beat on Siri.”

The Customers
Younger generations, namely Gen Z and Millennials, are known for valuing personalized experiences over products. Amazon, Google, and Facebook offer exceptionally personalized services, and so long as there is not a dramatic change in consumer values, there is a good chance they will win out over Apple. Their products offer a portal to the personalized services the other companies offer, but are not personalized in themselves.

As much as Apple has cultivated a very loyal customer base (who is growing older), they have done so through their consistently reliable products—not their exceptional knowledge of their customers (rather, they tell people what they want and need). Additionally, younger generations are more price sensitive, as they struggle to balance the increased cost of living alongside jobs with little security. If there is a cheap, comparable, and unique product on the market, it will not be hard to sell to Gen Z and the Millennials (who now make up 50% of the population).

Apple is no longer doing what they do best, nor are they innovating or catering to their customers. In today’s cutthroat tech industry, there is only so long they can rely on their bank account and their loyal customers before they begin to fall.

Streamlining Our Lives

“No moment in technology history has ever been more exciting or dangerous than now. The Internet is like a new computer running a flashy, exciting demo. We have been entranced by this demo for fifteen years. But now it is time to get to work, and make the Internet do what we want it to.” – David Gelernter, “Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously.” The Edge. (2010).

Continue reading “Streamlining Our Lives”

There’s a whole Web out there

“Hello world!” These two words are often the first to be published on a new blog – its automatic birth cry after being launched, if you so will – to familiarize first-time users with posting, commenting, and making one’s message public.

Funny as this hello to the unknown depths of the Internet may sound, the meaning behind it is real: it has never been simpler to enter the online publishing game and, in theory, anybody with unrestricted access to the Web can view any page – it is just a matter of finding it. In the reality of the attention-driven business that is online publishing, the way the Internet is mapped and presented by search engines determines what is likely to be found and what is not, posing challenges to content creators and readers alike.

Continue reading “There’s a whole Web out there”