If someone only watched Big Tech advertisements, they’d believe that these massive conglomerates are bastions of digital privacy. In the past few years, companies like Facebook and Google have inundated the airwaves with ads that highlight the companies’ efforts to protect user privacy. However, the one company that has worked the hardest to cultivate a secure and private image is Apple. Privacy was even the subject of a slick, wide-ranging marketing campaign for the company. Today, digital privacy is being marketed like a new product, and every company is claiming to value and protect your data. But how much of the marketing is accurate, and how much is just PR?
Here’s the truth: Big Tech corporations have taken steps to better protect users’ data in recent years, but there’s still a long, long way to go. Overall, it is a positive step that corporations are claiming to value digital privacy. After all, these widespread marketing campaigns have increased consumer awareness of digital privacy and its importance. However, while these companies claim they value privacy, they ultimately value the status quo more. This has led to the situation we’re in now: Companies are making small digital privacy improvements, primarily for good PR, but avoid going after the root of the problem.
What Steps Has Big Tech Taken?
You probably already know this, but Big Tech has mountains of data on billions of people around the world. These companies collect as much information as possible and then use that information to target you with specific advertisements. From simple things like name and date of birth to more private pieces of information like political affiliation, religion, and relationship status, Big Tech knows a lot about you, and they use this information to inundate your computer with personalized ads. And don’t think that ads are just a small part of Big Tech’s revenue. 98% of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertisements, highlighting just how vital data collection is to these Silicon Valley corporations.
This is why you should take Big Tech’s privacy claims with a grain of salt. Collecting mounds of user data is the lifeblood of Big Tech giants, so they aren’t about to make any changes that significantly impact their bottom line. So the next time you see a Google or Amazon ad claiming that they care about data privacy, just remember how those companies really earn their money. Judging by their revenue streams, the Big Tech giants aren’t really technology companies — they’re middlemen between you and advertisers.
But here’s the thing: Some companies actually have taken positive steps to better protect users’ digital privacy. For example, Google is phasing out the third-party cookie, a notorious program that tracked users and permanently stored their data. Additionally, Apple has begun to allow users to “ask apps not to track” their data. These are undeniably positive steps that put more power in the hands of users. While these changes won’t end Big Tech’s data-hungry behavior, overall, it’s a positive development.
What’s Behind Big Tech’s Privacy Push?
Unfortunately, Big Tech’s changes don’t go nearly far enough. Most of the changes that Big Tech companies have implemented simply alter how companies handle data once it’s already been collected. Now, is Google’s alternative to the third-party cookie more secure? Definitely. But the company is still collecting your data and storing it on their servers in order to advertise to you. The fundamental process of data collecting has not changed one bit, making it seem that Big Tech companies are simply looking to score PR points, rather than committing to actual change. Could that change in the future? It’s possible, but remember: Big Tech’s main clients are advertisers, not us. Unless a new way to deliver targeted ads without data collection is discovered, the current situation will likely continue.
We may have to get used to incremental change, rather than a digital privacy revolution. After all, nearly every Big Tech company spends millions each year in lobbying to shoot down bills that threaten their data collection processes. In fact, Facebook alone spent over USD $20 million in 2021 to lobby Congress to oppose any new regulations that give too much choice to consumers. Big Tech companies don’t just stop at lobbying either. In Virginia, Amazon and Microsoft supported a privacy bill that, while adding some new regulations, failed to put power in the hands of users. The new bill is filled with loopholes and explicitly forbids users from suing tech companies for violating their privacy. Big Tech loves to talk a big game regarding digital privacy, but when it comes down to it, they’ll do everything possible to prevent changes to the status quo.
How to Make Big Tech Prioritize Privacy
The best way to prioritize user privacy is to pass wide-ranging, enforceable legislation that would actually make Big Tech uncomfortable. For so long, these companies have collected and stored mountains of data on billions of people, while only making trivial improvements to their digital privacy policies. Ultimately, that’s why we can’t trust Big Tech to regulate itself — they’ll never voluntarily change their fundamental business model. Therefore, it’s up to politicians and regulators to force Big Tech into making legitimate, lasting change for good.
One law that has made a significant impact is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Under GDPR, websites must ask users for consent to collect their data, and it allows users to request the deletion of their personal data from a site. Make no mistake; these are genuinely positive steps toward empowering users. But for the people that live under GDPR’s jurisdiction, many feel that little has changed.
This feeling can be attributed to the “opt-out” nature of data collection under GDPR. Websites like Google and Facebook make it much easier to agree to data tracking than opting out of it. Agreeing to data collection requires just one click, while getting out of it requires navigating complicated options menus for every site. Big Tech knows that this model isn’t too disruptive, as the vast majority of people will simply accept tracking, rather than dealing with the headache of opting out. A truly effective solution would be to change data collection into an “opt-in” feature. Under this method, users would automatically be excluded from data collection, but could opt-in if they wished. Of course, this method would undoubtedly draw the ire of Big Tech, but it would be a significant improvement for data privacy. In 2019, Edward Snowden called GDPR “a good first effort … but it’s not a solution.” Ultimately, although GDPR and other regulations aren’t as effective as we may have hoped, they’re still positive steps toward a more secure, private Internet for all.
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