We all remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Senate investigation into Facebook’s mishandling of our data. It’s hard to shake off the memory of a smug and unperturbed Zuckerberg finagling his way out of culpability and an overwhelmingly tech-illiterate group of senators fumbling through a trainwreck of a hearing. But while we were busy drooling over our social media feeds and surviving a global pandemic, a far more thorough investigation was conducted by US lawmakers into Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Its conclusion? These companies have been abusing their monopoly power and must be broken up.
Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic leadership published a 499-page report that details the transgressions committed by America’s largest tech giants and its recommendations for how to rein them in. The companies are accused by lawmakers of resorting to unscrupulous tactics to maintain their dominance in key markets—from commerce to advertising to information sharing, quashing competition, harming small businesses and consumers, and jeopardising the public’s privacy rights in the process.
Democrats at the helm of the 16-month inquiry recommended breaking up the companies, reforming antitrust laws (which promote market competition), and empowering government agencies that monitor monopolistic behaviours of companies.
In its report, the committee states that the companies “wield their dominance in ways that erode entrepreneurship, degrade Americans’ privacy online, and undermine the vibrancy of the free and diverse press.” The result, the committee finds, “is less innovation, fewer choices for consumers, and a weakened democracy.”
The report’s findings were based on interviews with hundreds of competitors and clients of the tech companies, as well as a July 2020 hearing in which Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, and Mark Zuckerberg testified via videoconference in front of a panel of senators. During the hearing, lawmakers of both parties grilled the four executives about their companies’ predatory behaviour, albeit with different motives, with Democrats focusing on attempts to stifle competition and vanquish nascent start-ups and Republicans delving into the platforms’ alleged bias against conservatives. While the hearing was intentionally designed as a crowd-pleasing spectacle, it nonetheless emboldened Democrats to dig deeper into these companies’ dealings. “[A]nswers were often evasive and non-responsive … raising fresh questions about whether they believe they are beyond the reach of democratic oversight,” the report states.
Among the accusations levelled against Amazon in the report were claims that the online retail behemoth has established its dominance over numerous industries and has been unfairly promoting its own products over those of independent merchants who utilise its platform—37 per cent of which depend exclusively on Amazon for their income. The company is also accused of mining customer’s data in order to boost sales of home products and of bullying smaller sellers.
Apple is accused of acting as a gatekeeper of the software marketplace by determining which apps get to be featured on its App Store and favouring their own applications. The company has also been chided for charging a 30 per cent commission from sales of certain apps, which, in turn, raises prices for consumers.
As for Google, the report finds that the giant maintains a monopoly in search and search advertising and mines data from third parties in order to keep its edge over other search engines.
Facebook, ever the Voldemort of the tech world, faces multiple accusations, among which is the company’s usage of anti-competitive tactics to ‘entrench’ its monopoly over social networking and online advertising. The report accuses Facebook of systematically acquiring and cloning features of competitors in order to maintain their hegemony, and of violating data and privacy rights as it does so.
“As gatekeepers to the digital economy, these platforms enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, shake down small businesses and enrich themselves while choking off competitors […] Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy,” said Representative David Cicilline (D-RI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, in a statement.
The House Judiciary Committee’s investigation constitutes the most significant attempt to bridle tech companies’ power since the 1990s, when the US government sued Microsoft for antitrust violations. Alas, as all things American these days, conclusions about how to act against these tech giants had split along party lines. While the committee’s Democratic leadership has been unequivocal in its call to enact “structural” changes in these companies and empower federal agencies to monitor their conduct, Republicans rejected some of the report’s findings, instead focusing on the need to tackle tech companies’ muzzling of conservative voices, and were largely opposed to fortifying antitrust legislation and breaking up the companies.
Still, many view this report as a harbinger of change. Advocates for small businesses and figures fighting against tech monopolies believe that the committee has laid the groundwork for future antitrust legislation and have been urging congress to act swiftly.
With the future of our democracies on the line, and global markets (as well as the planet itself) quavering under the pressure of swelling monopolies, a genuine effort to rein in the rising American technocracy is desperately needed.
In the never-ending battle of Big Tech companies, Amazon has just released a new product: Amazon One, a “contactless way for people to use their palm” to conduct everyday activities like paying at a store or entering a location. According to Amazon, the new service is designed to be “highly secure and uses custom-built algorithms and hardware to create a person’s unique palm signature.” Is this something we can really trust Amazon with?
Granted, at first, this new product sounds crazy. Who in their right mind would willingly send their palm print to Amazon’s cloud? In comparison, Apple’s FaceID and TouchID are safer in the sense that both securely store a person’s biometric information on the device itself, meaning it is sealed off from other apps.
Amazon One’s rollout will start in selected Amazon Go stores, where it will be added to the store’s entry gate as a convenient choice for customers to use when entering the store to shop. In most retail environments, Amazon One could easily become an alternate payment or loyalty card option with a device at the checkout counter next to a traditional point of sale system. On top of that, Amazon thinks it could also be used for entering a location like a stadium, or badging into work.
Customers can already use Amazon One as an entry option at two of Seattle’s Amazon Go stores. It takes less than a minute to sign up using an Amazon One device. First, customers have to insert their credit card. Next, they need to hover their palm over the device and follow the prompts to associate that card with their unique palm signature that Amazon’s computer builds in real-time.
People get the option to enrol with just one palm or both, and then that’s it—they’re now signed up. Once they’re enrolled, all they have to do is to hold their palm above an Amazon One device for about a second or so.
When it comes to customer data, the Amazon One device is protected by multiple security controls and palm images are never stored on the device. Instead, the images are encrypted and sent to a “highly secure area” that Amazon has custom-built in the cloud where they create your palm signature. While the company’s obvious efforts at making potential new customers feel secure might reassure more than one, it should be clarified that your palm signature will be stored on Amazon’s cloud.
If you decide that you want to stop using Amazon One after trying it, in order for the company to delete your biometric data, you’ll have to request to delete data associated with Amazon One through the device itself or via the online customer portal at One.Amazon.com.
Data privacy worries pushed aside, I can’t lie, Amazon One does sound exciting albeit very futuristic, and as microchipping still hasn’t gotten under our skin, palm signatures might be the closest alternative we can get to it. Amazon One represents a quick, reliable, and somewhat secure way for people to identify themselves or authorise a transaction while moving seamlessly through their day.
Palm recognition is considered more private than some biometric alternatives because you can’t determine a person’s identity by looking at an image of their palm. It also requires someone to make an intentional gesture by holding their palm over the device to use, which means that it becomes harder to use against the owner’s will. And it’s contactless, which in current times is a pretty important point.
Amazon One will give the Big Tech company its own payments solution to compete with Apple Pay and Google Pay. And as we’ve seen after Amazon acquired Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in 2017, it is more than ready to go into physical retail. Will customers raise any concerns over Amazon One’s privacy settings? Let’s wait and see, but I’ve got a little idea of my own…