New world order: tech Goliaths are superseding nations

March 9, 2021 | 07:42 pm PT
Nguyen Nhu Van Expert in information technology and AI
As Google and Facebook hook their tentacles into our most sacred institutions, jeopardizing our fundamental rights and freedoms, we need to take back control of our lives.

My mother was astonished.

"But we haven’t paid them a single cent," she said, on learning that the owners of Facebook and Google are among the world’s richest people.

She would be rendered speechless to know it’s not just the money they make, it’s the extent to which Facebook and Google are gaining control of our lives.

My associate professor left WhatsApp the day it decided to share its users’ data with Facebook.

"I’m not using WhatsApp anymore, goodbye everyone," he said, before leaving the group chat of our research department in France earlier this year. As an expert in digital technology, the man had chosen WhatsApp several years earlier because it offered privacy and confidentiality. But that is no longer the case.

He said he didn’t want to feed his personal data to tech giants like Facebook.

I thought it was a bit extreme to walk out like that. After all, the things we discussed on the app weren’t that confidential. But I knew he wasn’t wrong. We, as end users, are nourishing such digital platforms with our information and attention.

As someone in the tech field, I use Facebook to connect with my friends and relatives, and also for entertainment. But I constantly remind myself not to give too much away, whether it be personal info or profile pictures. So I thought Facebook wouldn’t be able to get anything out of me.

One day I realized everything on my Facebook feed was either technology news or soccer videos. The people I had the least contact with had disappeared from the feed entirely. It turns out Facebook has been making me see what it wants me to see, using its filters. I have been so dependent on Facebook that my behavior and what I’m looking for on the Internet had changed without my knowledge.

Facebook began with a noble mission: to connect people and provide them access to information. Today, the likes of Facebook and Google have joined the ranks of global tech titans, unmatched by any other competitor in both economic prowess and influence. And that should be a worrying fact.

Around 70 million people in Vietnam use Facebook, accounting for over 70 percent of its population, a staggering number. Even someone like my father, who’s already over 80, has already formed a habit of checking Facebook every day, despite his waning eyesight.

The sun never sets within the virtual borders of these empires, dwelling in cyberspace and affecting billions all over the world. Thanks to AI and Big Data, they will keep expanding in might and scope like a rigged 4X game, well on their way to becoming invisible nations with limitless influence. From banking, online shopping to dating, they sit in the shadows while pulling the strings that control many aspects of our lives.

Power always comes with the opportunity to abuse it. Using codes, clicks and algorithms, Google and Facebook can decide what their users can see or not see. They can make us want things they think we want, but not always the things we need.

And it only goes downhill from there. As the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Logos of Twitter, Google and Facebook are shown on a screen. Illustration photo by Shutterstock.

Logos of Twitter, Google and Facebook are shown on a screen. Illustration photo by Shutterstock.

Now, with billions of people dancing to their tunes, Google and Facebook are flexing their muscles, ready to take on governments to safeguard their interests. Google threatened to pull its search engine out of Australia as the country made an effort to protect its media companies. Facebook didn’t hesitate to block all news articles in Australia when the country wanted the social platform to share its advertisement profits. They are only two of the most prominent examples of how much power such tech giants wield, that can force even countries’ hands in their game of choreographing economic and political activities around the world.

Such power is simply too vast and dangerous. The slightest misstep could result in social upheaval. When Facebook blocked news stories from Australia, it also inadvertently blocked access to vital information on charity and healthcare from those who needed them the most, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Is there any way to rein in these wild creatures?

Besides countries like China or North Korea who took a hard-line stance from the very beginning, others like Australia have forced Google and Facebook to cough up cash if they want to display news sources from the country. European countries have taken steps to limit their power and protect their citizens’ privacy, while the U.S. has launched hearings to investigate possible power abuse committed by Google, Facebook and Amazon. But the battle has just begun.

Vietnam is ranked 7th among countries with the highest number of Facebook users. While authorities have made some headway in keeping order in cyberspace, getting rid of fake news and other measures to manage such digital platforms, they might not be enough.

We have to do much more to protect the rights and privacy of all citizens, businesses and even the government from the ever expanding tentacles of these giants. There is a real need for a way forward that disarms such tech giants while not stymieing human progress.

It’s a fight we cannot afford to lose.

*Nguyen Nhu Van holds a doctorate in Information Technology and is an expert on Artificial Intelligence. He currently researches and teaches at the La Rochelle University in France. The opinions expressed are his own.

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