regulate the big techs

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By EUGENIO BUCCI*

Never since the industrial revolutions has exploitation reached such base levels.

For Mark Zuckerberg, owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, this has been one hell of a week. On Monday, a technological failure took the three platforms offline, worldwide, for a period of more or less seven hours. In Brazil, instability began at lunchtime. Small businesses, such as restaurants and technical assistance workshops, which receive orders via WhatsApp, had to stop operations. A lot of people couldn't work.

So it was for billions of people. That's right: billions. It is estimated that 2 billion human beings, every day, clock in – in fact, clock in hundreds of times a day – at the terminals of what the intimate call Face, Insta and Zap. Two billion souls. Many of these souls don't know how to stop clicking on Mark Zuckerberg's icons. They are addicted. Some had bouts of anxiety. It was a nervous Monday. The empire's shares plummeted something like 5% on the Nasdaq in New York.

To complete the hellish week, another hecatomb, this one more persistent, shook the foundations of Facebook's credibility. A former senior employee, Frances Haugen, who had already been anonymously denouncing the company's excesses, showed her face, gave interviews and, on Tuesday, testified at a hearing in the US Senate. According to the allegations, the company would have ignored serious warnings, such as that the apps were used for the trafficking of people or human organs, or that the tyranny of a beauty model on Instagram would cause depression and even suicide among teenagers. There is also the accusation that Zuckerberg profits from the polarization of the public debate and, therefore, is soft-spoken when it comes to moderating the flow of hateful messages or deliberate disinformation on the networks.

What to do now? How to contain the empire? To answer this question, Frances Haugen maintains that Facebook is “regulated” by legal frameworks.

Of course, the stories presented by her still need to be refined. Facebook, for its part, denies all of them, so that, in this regard, we are still far from a conclusion. But when she talks about regulating the market, the former employee is right. With or without deleterious, abject or condemnable practices, the degree of monopoly achieved by this conglomerate is proving to be incompatible with the free market regime. Where there is such a concentration of capital, technology and power, there cannot be free competition, of course, and when this kind of distortion arises, only democratic regulatory devices can deal with it.

This is so true that, since the first half of the 20th century, in the United States, antitrust laws came to break monopolies and ensure competition between rival companies in different sectors of the economy. Therefore, there is nothing new in claiming that regulatory frameworks impose limits on monopoly gigantism.

And we are not talking about any gigantism here. The five big techs in the United States – Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google – reached, together, at the end of July, the price of US$ 9,3 trillion. The net annual revenue of the five companies exceeds US$ 200 billion. These are astonishing figures, unprecedented in the history of capitalism, which keep rising.

To make matters worse, this trillion dollar industry has a freakishly underhanded way of manufacturing value. It is fueled by the free work of such “users”, who do not earn a penny for the hours (exhausting days) they spend on screens, where they never tire of “posting” audios, tables, images, texts and videos. Through “posts” and “clicks”, the willing and happy “users” provide their most intimate data to the conglomerates – and these finally transform personal data into mountains of dollars.

Never, since the industrial revolutions of the 19th century, has exploitation reached such refined and vile levels: the “user” is at the same time the workforce, the raw material and the commodity, and it comes out for free. Big tech – with Facebook at the forefront – unhesitatingly exploits the anguish of suicidal teenagers and the violent rage of crowds that worship autocratic leaders. They raise mountains of money with it. The unlikely reader should not be deceived: we are facing an unprecedented ethical disaster – even if the accusations that have now exploded are partially false. The disaster is part of the structure of this business, it is not episodic.

At this point, no one in good faith in the United States, whether Republican or Democratic, has any doubts about the need for some regulation. The question is: which regulation? Divide each of the big five into two or three companies? Force them to open their algorithms, so that they are public? The debate will go through traumas and thorns, but it cannot wait any longer. The agenda is urgent – ​​not just in Washington. The future of democracies around the world depends on the answers the United States gives to these questions.

* Eugene Bucci He is a professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of A superindustry of the imaginary (Autentica).

Originally published in the newspaper The State of S. Paul, on October 07, 2021.

 

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