Toronto Star

Big Tech’s privacy plea a bid to access your data


Big Tech’s latest pretence is that it deeply cares about privacy. Don’t be fooled, we are not witnessing a rare moment of self-reflection from the Silicon Valley giants.

Rather, it is an aggressive move that will force companies to spend even more on advertisin­g, while granting Big Tech sole access to the most valuable resource of the digital age: data.

The latest issue at hand is over cookies, and not the kind you have as a midnight snack. A cookie is a small text string sent from a website to your device, which is stored on your device.

With that cookie in place, a website can remember informatio­n about your visit such as when you were there, what pages you went to, how much time you spent on the site, and whether you made a purchase.

For most businesses, cookies don’t result in a digital version of the famous book “1984,” they just mean being able to sell the right products to the right people and have intelligen­ce on how people are using your website.

Big Tech won’t save us from digital surveillan­ce. Instead, it wants to monopolize it.

“Third-party cookies” means exactly that; they only belong to thirdparti­es. Both Facebook and Google will inevitably continue to track our behaviour in their own ecosystems. Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to navigate the web outside of Facebook and Google’s sprawling internet empires. Some 1.5 billion people, have a Gmail account, and 2.85 billion have a Facebook account. Those people will continue to have their every move tracked, harvested and used to predict our next move, giving yet another major leg up to these already growing monopolies.

Privacy concerns are real. Pew Research reveals that 62 per cent of Americans feel they can’t go through a day without being tracked. However, for a firm like Google, blocking third-party cookies feels like an alcoholic telling a nun that they can’t drink the communion wine.

It’s the tech firms, with their infinite digital, capital, and human resources, that people should be most concerned about. The Cambridge Analytica scandal reveals that it is only sophistica­ted tech companies who treat human experience as free raw material that can be mined and used to manipulate us enmasse.

It’s actually the businesses that have relied on third-party cookies for advertisin­g for the past 20 years who stand to lose the most. Without the organic data provided by cookies, they will have no choice but to rely on increasing­ly expensive online advertisin­g, provided by, you guessed it, the four most powerful tech companies in the world.

History shows that if Big Tech can make businesses more dependent on it, it will. If it can pretend it is making the world a better place in the process, then even better.

In this increasing­ly globalized and digitalize­d world, everyone who owns a business has to have a website to sell their services or goods. Some 36 per cent of all websites use cookies. A cookie-less world will inevitably send shock waves through the e-commerce industry, while cementing power in the hands of Silicon Valley.

There’s no wonder Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft unilateral­ly support this path of travel; they all have nothing to lose. They will be the only ones with the power to peer into our digital souls.

There are shades of price fixing in this dynamic. There seems to be a nod and a wink between these rival firms; they all know that this seemingly well-intentione­d move will provide both a boost in profit and a well-needed PR facelift.

In fact, it is not dissimilar to what happened in 1984 when the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against AT&T after it was accused of price-fixing and it had to be broken up into smaller companies. Before that there were the energy and manufactur­ing firms monopolizi­ng the Industrial Revolution. Data is the new oil; this power grab is AT&T’s modern day equivalent.

Before we know it, these tech giants will have such a monopoly they will start charging other businesses and individual­s to use their data. And they will be forced to pay a premium because that’s the only place they can get it from.

Rather than Big Tech owning the data, it should be in the hands of the millions of companies that really need it to market and sell their products or services. Quite simply, these companies aren’t sophistica­ted enough to do anything other than send us ads. For manipulati­on of public consciousn­ess and souring of political discourse, you’ll need the unmitigate­d power of Big Tech.

In the post-COVID, digital era, every business that is online needs to be able to target customers. If they can’t, they fail. Indeed, it is not small independen­t stores or medium-sized chains that are doing harm with your data.

Instead, it is those companies who have the power to automate everything, including us, that should concern us the most. This “cookieless world” will only mean that more people are tracked by fewer individual­s. That results in far less privacy, not more. And this isn’t just my opinion or some far out conspiracy theory, already platforms like Google have announced convenient new advertisin­g solutions for businesses to track and target customers.

Privacy concerns should be taken seriously. But it isn’t the real driver behind Google and Facebook’s move toward a cookieless world. Yet again, it is profit and power, not privacy, that guides these companies forward. We must not let them have their cookies and eat them.

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