Aldous Huxley described the human condition as “forever creating [social] organizations for their own convenience and forever finding themselves the victims of their “home-made monsters.” Although Huxley made this comment in 1950, it remains true today — and truer than ever online.
Consider the power and practices of Big Tech. Tech platforms such as TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon let us access entertainment, reach out to our friends, share our thoughts, find any information we desire and purchase almost anything, all through a convenient device that fits in our pocket. Indeed, around 70 percent of Americans now use social media on a regular basis. In return, we give them our undivided attention and almost unfettered access into our most intimate selves.
So it’s no surprise that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has opened a rulemaking process to examine the “commercial surveillance” of Big Tech platforms and consider whether federal rules are needed to protect the privacy of the American consumer.
And it’s unlikely that anyone will be too surprised at what the FTC finds. Big Tech has a long history of promising to protect consumers while doing precisely the opposite. In the last five years alone, the Commission has brought 76 cases against companies for violating their users’ privacy or security, including cases against Twitter, Facebook, Zoom, Google, YouTube, Uber and PayPal.
Consider revelations brought to light by a recent case by the state of Texas against Google. Google offers a setting to users regarding their “Location History,” which Google explained to users meant that “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” Nonetheless, Google continued to collect and store information on where users went — i.e., their location history.
In a similar vein, Google’s Chrome browser is well-known and lauded for offering Incognito Mode, which promises that Chrome won’t save information about a user’s browsing history, cookies or other information. In short, when a user goes Incognito, Google promises it won’t spy on you. Turns out, as shown by a consumer lawsuit in California, that’s not the case. Google still tracks many users’ online behaviors even when in Incognito. Indeed, Google engineers joked in 2018 that the “spy guy” icon used to represent Incognito mode “accurately conveys the level of privacy [Chrome] provides” — i.e., Google was still spying on you.
Unfortunately, Google is not even the worst Big Tech spy that we know about. That appellation goes to TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance. TikTok has publicly and repeatedly proclaimed, including in congressional testimony, that it does not send information about its users back to China. Turns out (again) that’s not the case. In truth, TikTok’s own staff admits that “Everything is seen in China,” which has “access to everything.” Indeed, one Beijing-led team planned to use TikTok to follow the movements of individual U.S. citizens. So it’s no wonder that some are calling the app “China’s Trojan Horse” into America.
In short, these Big Tech platforms know our real-time locations, the contours of our face, our voice, our likes and dislikes and even our emotional state.
They use this information to create highly addictive platforms by design. They aggressively and acutely provide you with “suggested” content to keep you hooked. They seem to have perfected the old newsman’s adage, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
The effects can be disastrous. Consider Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who explained in her congressional testimony that Facebook’s own internal research showed that the social media platform “has a serious negative harm on a significant portion of teenagers and younger children.” Specifically, the study showed that social media exposes children to online predators and has increased the incidence of teenage eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
This evidence of Big Tech data abuse is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. What other information is Google or TikTok or Facebook gathering? How is it used? What information about each of us is shared with data aggregators — the seedy underbelly of online advertising? How much information is shared with China?
Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission need not rely on its rulemaking process alone to gather this information. Almost two years ago, the Commission launched an investigation into the privacy practices of nine social media and video streaming companies — including TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Amazon. The investigation was wide-ranging, demanding information about what information is collected, how it is collected, how it is used and how it affects American children. And the investigation carried the force of law — the Big Tech targets were required to respond within 45 days.
And yet, 22 months later, the Commission has not released the results of its work. Not for TikTok. Not for Facebook. Not for anyone. And that’s a problem for the American public faced with commenting on the FTC’s proposed rulemaking process. How are informed citizens going to aid the Commission’s rulemaking when the Commission itself has not yet informed them of what it has learned?
It’s past time for the FTC to release the results of its investigation. If we want to rein in the home-made monster that Big Tech has become, the American public needs a guiding light — and one that only the FTC can deliver.
Joel Thayer is president of the Digital Progress Institute and a Washington-based telecom and tech attorney.