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[Jane Hoffman] Time to pull in reins of Big Tech

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 21, 2023 - 05:31

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Every day, the $6.7 trillion Big Tech industry affects our lives in ways that empower and harm. Despite recent hits in earnings, current layoffs and Google getting slapped with yet another lawsuit from the Justice Department, the tech giants are still all-powerful in our society, economy and daily lives. As long as the digital age keeps pulling more of our lives online, Big Tech companies will grow and dominate.

The big five -- Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple -- have become so large that they rule the marketplace on their own terms. As a result, smaller companies and consumers lose out, and innovation is stifled. Our online behavior is tracked across the internet and sold as data and toxic misinformation that threatens lives and democracy.

The digital ecosystem has redefined our identities and place in society. We used to consider ourselves citizens, but in today’s digital world, that’s naive. First and foremost, we are data.

Some lawmakers propose breaking up these monopolies and drafting new regulations. If and when we follow through with these actions, we’ll start catching up with the international community’s efforts to reign in Big Tech’s abuses. For example, in December, the European Union adopted a new minimum tax rate of 15 percent for large corporations operating in the EU, following the G-20′s guidelines. The trend is to make the biggest companies in the world -- Big Tech -- start paying up like everyone else.

If the global tech tax becomes reality, how should those new tax dollars be spent? Since the profits being taxed are largely made off our personal data, it’s time for the people behind that data to get a piece. Let’s share that tax windfall with the billions of online users whose data is the bedrock of the digital advertising business model.

Digital platform fairness can emerge in other ways, too, if we create a system for it.

Our best efforts in taming the Big Tech free-for-all would be well spent creating a national board packed with a wide range of experts to address Big Tech’s overreach. Getting tech right for consumers and the economy is all about fairness, and a Technology Fairness Commission could bring together the country’s leading tech experts to untangle these challenges.

With a focus on how to transform the Wild West digital marketplace into a fair-for-all network, these top tech minds could provide the guidelines lawmakers need to create doable, sensible and effective regulation. The commission could also report its conclusions about fairness to the tech companies themselves and the everyday tech users.

This commission’s first task could be to outline a distribution system for a data dividend and define the principles of tech fairness.

There’s more at stake than getting annoyed by ads that seem to read your mind. (They’re actually reading the trail of clicks you make every second you’re online.) The click-for-profit business model that controls what we see in order to keep our eyes on the ad space as long as possible is taking a toll on our brains, health, society and democracy. Our data turns into cash for Big Tech as it flows from our phones; smart TVs; video doorbells; computers; cars; gaming consoles; Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts; medical records; Amazon clicks; and Google searches.

We are at the center of the world’s largest industry that lives, breathes and profits from our personal information, and that giant has run roughshod through our lives for too long. We must get serious about claiming our online privacy and making Big Tech follow the same rules as other industries.

A Technology Fairness Commission could steer us in the right direction by showing tech users what digital fairness looks like. When everyday users know the facts about the profit motive behind disinformation pipelines that can derail our health and institutions, they may start pushing back against tech companies that refuse to enforce their policies. We’ve formed commissions to shed light on everything from the 9/11 attacks to changes potentially needed in the Supreme Court. Facebook created its own oversight board to help it make decisions about its news feeds, specifically “what to take down, what to leave up, and why.” It’s time for a commission dedicated to the myriad issues around Big Tech.

Shifting tides in our economy, institutions and society demand thoughtful action to make sure the digital economy evolves in a fair, democratic and sustainable way. We can’t wait for Congress to agree on regulations to tame Big Tech’s excesses in cornering markets and mining our personal data.

A Technology Fairness Commission and a data dividend would be a practical start, because contrary to the alarm bells, Big Tech is not “collapsing.” It’s not even in trouble. And it’s here to stay.

Jane Hoffman

Jane Hoffman is a fellow at Harvard University, a former commissioner of consumer affairs in New York City. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)