Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author; view more opinion at CNN.
Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren argued in a blog post on Friday that “it’s time to break up Amazon, Google, and Facebook.” The reason, she says, is because they have become such large monopolies that they’re stifling competition from smaller startups and therefore impeding opportunities and innovation.
Warren’s proposal would ban companies with $25 billion or more in annual revenue from owning both a platform and companies that participate on the platform – so Google, for instance, would have to split its search engine from its ad business. Warren also said she would reverse mega mergers, like Facebook’s ownership of WhatsApp and Instagram, the merger of Amazon with Whole Foods and Zappos, along with Google’s acquisition of companies like Waze.
Sen. Warren is right that the business monopolies these companies enjoy are bad for other American businesses and ultimately reduce the choices of consumers. But there’s another kind of power these tech companies all have that is an even bigger threat: their monopoly on information. Warren’s proposal doesn’t fully fix this larger problem.
First, these tech companies largely determine what we find on search engines or news feeds when we search for information to make decisions – like who to vote for or where to seek medical treatment. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 90% of Americans use the Internet. As Sen. Warren notes in her proposal, Google and Facebook own the sites that receive over 70% of the traffic on the Internet. So they certainly have a monopoly on the information Americans access. And they have structured their algorithms so that the information people see on their sites is at least partly determined by their own business interests.
For example, companies and politicians who buy ads jump to the top of Google search results, regardless of whether a person searching for information online might be better served by seeing other sites first. In a 1998 paper, Google’s own founders, Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, highlighted this conflict when they noted that if someone searches the words “cellular phone” on a search engine that sells ads to cell phone companies – like Google – the search engine would have incentives not to show a study about how cell phones dangerously distract drivers first.
Sen. Warren’s proposal to have the Google search engine split off from its ad business would only partially solve this problem. Most people don’t scroll very far down search engine results so if we want Americans to be well informed and to easily access a broad spectrum of information when they make important decisions, we need laws that prevent search engine companies from designing algorithms to favor their advertisers or information that serves their own political interests.
Second, big tech companies have vast troves of personal information – from the medical symptoms we search for on Google to the pictures of our kids that we post on Facebook. And it’s clear after hacks and other unintended breaches that they aren’t very good at safeguarding it. In October, for example, Google announced it would shutter its social network Google Plus after admitting that a software problem exposed the personal information of up to half a million of its users to outside developers. Another bug, which was fixed after six days, exposed user data from a shocking 52.5 million accounts.
Sen. Warren argued that reversing some of the mergers she seeks to break up would “put pressure on big tech companies to be more responsive to user concerns, including about privacy.”
She’s right that more competition could result in new startup companies that better protect personal information, which could put market pressure on companies like Google and Facebook to improve their own security controls. But what’s also needed is for government regulators to oversee how all this data is stored to ensure that it’s better protected. Sen. Warren, who created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect Americans from financial institutions, would be well placed to propose a regulatory structure for technology companies.
In addition to more safeguards from unintended breaches, Americans should have more choices about what companies like Facebook and Google do with our data. In December, for example, the New York Times revealed that Facebook had been sharing the data of its users with other companies, including Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and even foreign entities like the Chinese telecom company Huawei and Russian search giant Yandex.
Sen. Warren’s proposal wouldn’t allow large tech companies to share user data with third parties. That’s a great first step, but it still doesn’t give Americans enough choices about how their data is harvested and used.
Facebook, for example, gathers user data internally which it uses to sell ads to third parties. Last year, Cambridge Analytica – a company the Trump campaign hired during the 2016 presidential election – accessed user data without permission. That data was then used to create “psychographic profiles” of users to predict their voting behavior. Even if third parties couldn’t access such data anymore, nothing in Sen. Warren’s proposal would prevent Facebook from doing the same thing itself.
As I’ve argued before, platforms like Google and Facebook have become so necessary to our ability to find jobs, access other essential information and stay connected to other people that we need more choices than our current options. We shouldn’t have to choose between either access to information or privacy – we should have options that provide both.
Sen. Warren acknowledged her proposal “won’t solve every problem we have with our big tech companies.” She also recognized that Americans need “more control over how their personal information is collected, shared, and sold. ” She should follow up with a bill that would give us such choices.
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Sen. Warren is on the right track by calling for these monopolies to be broken up. And her proposal takes the important first step of limiting how our data can be shared with third parties. But she shouldn’t stop there. The government needs to take a more active role in regulating these companies and the power they wield over the information we access and our personal data, which is being used to advance their own interests.