With record fines dished out over tech firms’ use of personal data, and their public images becoming increasingly tarnished, 2019 was the year the world started to turn against its tech giants, says Donna Lu
18 December 2019
WITH record fines dished out over tech firms’ use of personal data, and their public images becoming increasingly tarnished, this was the year the world started to turn against its tech giants.
At the beginning of 2019, France’s National Commission on Informatics and Liberty hit Google with a €50 million fine for lack of valid consent and transparency around personalised ads. In October, Facebook agreed to pay a fine of £500,000 to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office for failing to protect users’ personal information relating to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Although the firm didn’t admit fault over data misuse, this is the largest fine that could be issued.
Amazon, Apple and Facebook all faced criticism this year over revelations that staff and contractors had listened to audio recordings of people speaking to virtual assistants Alexa and Siri, and voice chats recorded on Facebook Messenger.
The issue extends to children, too. Video-sharing app TikTok, popular among people under 25, was fined $5.7 million by the US Federal Trade Commission for collecting personal data from children under 13.
“People have started to care more about data privacy, but there’s still an overwhelming sense of helplessness,” says Aaron Roth at the University of Maryland.
“Most people just shrug and seem to accept that they are powerless,” says Stephanie Hare, author of the forthcoming book Technology Ethics. “In a way, they are, because there are not many privacy-enhancing alternatives.”
While there are some options for people who care about data privacy, such as the search engine DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t personalise its search results by profiling its users, there is a real lack of competition. “We are seeing big tech operating essentially as a cartel,” says Hare.
The European commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager, has enacted antitrust measures to regulate the tech industry, and 2020 US Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has indicated an intention to break up big tech. In the UK, there has been little in the way of legislation to date, despite eight parliamentary inquiries and four reviews into internet regulation.
Tech companies are unlikely to capitulate. They would much rather pay the occasional fine than be forced to stop collecting our data, says Hare.
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