Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Apple rule the online world. Should we be worried?

kaboompics_Robots on an exhibition.jpg

I want to briefly interrupt my behavioral economics series for a topic that has been on my mind for a while. Approximately two years ago I realized that technology was such an important issue in our world that I needed to start following it more closely. Specifically, I realized that technology is going to (and already does) have a dramatic impact on humanity, meaning that I would be a fool not to take it seriously.

Technology is about much more than smart toilet seats and ridiculous folding phones. It’s going to fundamentally shape our jobs, where and how we work, how we live, income inequality, and almost every other facet of our lives. Because of this, I want to talk about an important topic today based on two articles I recently read:

Are we dangerously (over)dependent on the Big 5 tech companies?

Spoiler alert: Yes, but it’s not all your fault.

These are the Big 5, along with a few of the most important companies they own:

  1. Amazon (including Amazon Web Services, Twitch, IMDb, Ring, Whole Foods, and many more)

  2. Google/Alphabet (including Android, YouTube, and many more)

  3. Facebook (including Whatsapp, Instagram, and more)

  4. Microsoft (including Skype, LinkedIn, Github, and more)

  5. Apple (including Shazam, Siri, and a few more)

Moreover, the two articles that inspired this post are Daniel Oberhaus’s piece on Motherboard called “How I Quit Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon” and Kashmir Hill’s piece on Gizmodo called “I Cut the 'Big Five' Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell.” They’re very long articles, but well worth the read and will help put everything that follows into context.

An Ivy League professor tells me he regularly employs a Google blocker. “I had to disable it when I paid my taxes because they have Google Analytics on the IRS website,” he says. “It was kind of horrifying.”
— Kashmir Hill from her article "I Cut the 'Big Five' Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell"

Hard and Soft Blocks

Oberhaus quit all five companies but with an important caveat. He didn’t completely avoid products and services that were powered by Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Analytics, and Facebook trackers. Hill, on the other hand, took a true scorched-earth approach:

Not only am I boycotting their products, a technologist named Dhruv Mehrotra designed a special network tool that prevents my devices from communicating with the tech giants’ servers, meaning that ads and analytics from Google won’t work, Facebook can’t track me across the internet, and websites hosted by Amazon Web Services, or AWS, hypothetically won’t load.
— Kashmir Hill from her article "I Cut the 'Big Five' Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell"

In a way, Oberhaus’s experiment was the warmup to the main act that was Hill’s hard Brexit, ahem, block. While life was still somewhat manageable for Oberhaus, it was absolute hell for Hill, as the title of her article suggests. The most mundane tasks, like emailing a large file to someone (386 MB), became more difficult than negotiating an international peace treaty.

Specifically, the only email alternatives that didn’t break the rules of her experiment — ProtonMail and Riseup — couldn’t handle a file that large. Dropbox is powered by AWS, so that ruled that one out. All other open-source, encrypted file-sharing services were either powered by AWS or had to be downloaded from Github (owned by Microsoft).

Eventually, Hill had to ask her friend to guide her step-by-step through downloading Onionshare —“a tool for sharing files privately via the “dark web”” — directly from that friend’s server via command line on her Linux computer.

I consider myself pretty tech savvy, but reading that made me dizzy.

As Hill says in her piece, that simple example shows the excruciating lengths one has to go through to be free of the tentacles of the Big 5 companies (though in the case of that example, it was really just 3 companies: Google, Amazon, and Microsoft) and, more importantly, how few viable alternatives there are.

On the first day of the block, I drive to work in silence because my rented Ford Fusion’s “SYNC” entertainment system is powered by Microsoft.
— Kashmir Hill from her article "I Cut the 'Big Five' Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell"

Amazon (Web Services)

To me, one of the biggest takeaways from these two stories is the behemoth that is AWS, Amazon’s subsidiary that provides “on-demand cloud computing platforms to individuals, companies and governments, on a paid subscription basis.” I say this because the average person is completely unaware that AWS even exists. How can we understand the extent of a threat when we cannot even see it?

AWS is far more powerful and prevalent than the average person realized. In fact, even the CIA uses it.

As I encountered at the beginning of this experiment, Amazon’s most profitable business isn’t retail; it’s web hosting. Countless apps and websites rely on the digital infrastructure provided by AWS, and none of them are working for me this week.
— Kashmir Hill from her article "I Cut the 'Big Five' Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell"

This shows the extent of Amazon’s power in the online world and how far and wide its tentacles reach. Of the five companies mentioned, I personally believe that Jeff Bezos’ empire is probably the most difficult to stop in its quest to own every slice of the Internet. This is even more striking when you see Hill’s graph of “total attempts to interact with my devices during the week” in her article:

  1. Amazon: 95,260 attempts

  2. Google: 40,527 attempts

  3. Facebook: 2,238 attempts

  4. Microsoft: 1,092 attempts

  5. Apple: 36 attempts

And yet, we all stand by and watch in admiration as Amazon gobbles up company after company after company, rapidly expanding its global dominance in the online (and offline) retail world.

What can you do?

Well, besides shrugging your shoulders, resorting to playing the best video game ever, or going into full-blown panic, I honestly don’t know. AWS powers almost half the Internet and there are only 2 viable operating systems for both computers (Windows and Mac) and mobile phones (Android and iOS). Besides Kashmir Hill’s scorched-earth approach, there’s simply no way you can reasonably function and exist in the digital age without using these five companies in some way or the other.

Here’s what you absolutely can and should do though: a thorough assessment of how dependent you are on the Big Five’s services throughout your daily life. To help you with this, here’s a rough sketch of my own assessment:

  • Amazon

I barely shop on Amazon. This is pretty easy because given my terrible simple and minimalistic lifestyle, I just don’t buy much of anything besides food. I really only use Amazon to get books for my Kindle, thought there are many more e-readers on the market like the Nook and the Kobo (do as I say, not as I do). I try to buy physical books as much as possible and I check eBay for products that I can’t find in the grocery store or in local stores (though Lord knows, it’s probably also powered by AWS). I don’t have Amazon Prime (and probably never will) and only use Amazon as an absolute emergency when I need a very specific product that I can’t find anywhere else. Like I said though, given the difficulty of finding out which services are powered by AWS (since it’s a back-end operation), I frankly have no idea what to do about my relationship with Amazon in that domain.

  • Microsoft

Surprisingly difficult for me. I use LinkedIn and Overdrive a lot, Skype from time to time, and, in addition to DuckDuckGo (which just happens to be powered by AWS), use Bing as my search engine. I also use Windows as my computer operating system — I absolutely do not see myself using Mac unless I have to for work — and Hotmail as my main email provider.

  • Google (Alphabet)

I’m somewhat disconnected from Google. I use Mozilla Firefox (an excellent browser!) instead of Chrome, use Bing and DuckDuckGo as search engines, and only use Gmail and Google Drive at work because these are the standard systems there (I find Google Drive a bit overrated honestly and prefer Dropbox or OneDrive). I do have a secondary email account that’s a Gmail account, but I only use that for junk, random subscriptions, and when I need to make an account for a website that I’ll only use once. This second email account is basically a backup/junk account for when I don’t feel like using my main email for something. As for YouTube, that’s simply a lost battle given that there’s absolutely no viable alternative to that. To be fair, I only use it to play those 10-hour long instrumental music playlists when I’m at work. In terms of my phone, I use a BlackBerry Classic, which runs on BlackBerry OS. This works fine for me because besides messaging, email, and light browsing, I barely use my phone. However, after the few apps that I regularly used (LinkedIn, Whatsapp) ended support for the BlackBerry OS versions of their services, I was “forced” to install Google Play Store on it.

  • Apple

I’m probably most disconnected from Apple, though I do have a 6-year old iPod touch that’s collecting dust somewhere in my room. I have iTunes on my computer, but only use that to store old music I’ve had for years rather than buy music/movies or use Apple Music. Lastly, I don’t have an iPhone or iPad (or any tablet, for that matter) and will probably never need to get one. Honestly, I don’t really understand the appeal of Apple. It’s no more than a luxury brand to me.

  • Facebook

The company we all love to hate and yet still use. I have a Facebook account, but barely use it. I share the occasional article, like a post once in a while, but never post statuses and certainly never upload pictures. I mostly use it as an online calendar to remind me of events in the community that I sometimes forget about. Furthermore, I see absolutely no appeal to Instagram, so don’t use that either.

My biggest “sin” however, is that I use Whatsapp very frequently. My greatest anger regarding the tech world is that Facebook owns the company. Whatsapp is one of the few services that I use that I might say is indispensable to me, given that the majority of my friends are overseas and the app is honestly a phenomenal messaging platform. In my defense, I started using Whatsapp before Facebook bought it and even remember the days when it cost $1/year to use it. While I would gladly use a service like BlackBerry Messenger (available on iOS and Android), getting people to switch to that would be like fighting an army by myself.

While it’s true that you can’t fully untangle yourself from the stranglehold of these five companies, you do need to reduce your dependence on and usage of these services wherever possible. By assessing how you use their products and services, it’ll be easier to figure out where you can reduce your consumption. And believe me, there are many small ways possible. Google isn’t the only search engine out there, Chrome isn’t the only web browser that exists, and given how bad social media is for your mental health, Lord knows you really don’t need to be on Facebook or Instagram that much (hint: having your own website is far better).

Furthermore, many of the products that you buy on Amazon are available at your local grocery store or other local stores and a Kindle isn’t the only e-reader on the market (I repeat, do as I say, not as I do). As I also mentioned earlier, I don’t shop on Amazon that much because I simply don’t consume that much in general. I rarely buy new clothes, phones, gadgets, or other luxury goods. And don’t worry, my quality of life is just fine.

And that’s really at the core of it: due to our current lifestyles, we consume too much stuff. So while you assess how deep your love is with these five companies, you might also want to think about how materialistic you are.

The moral arguments

Some will say that Hill’s experiment is unnecessarily extreme. Why would you stop using services that add value to your life just to take a moral stance? Why is it “bad” to use these services if they make your life better/easier?

These are fair arguments, arguments that must be taken into account when thinking about how ingrained these five companies are in our daily lives. If they add so much value to your daily life, perhaps you shouldn’t care about any of what Hill or Oberhaus wrote in their articles. Maybe there isn’t anything inherently bad about these companies and their products and services. For example, should I force my friends to quit Whatsapp and use BlackBerry Messenger just because Facebook owns the former? What rational arguments do I have to support this claim, especially if my friends claim that they gain more benefit from Whatsapp?

I started this article by talking about how technology’s grip and domination over our lives — socially, economically, politically — is set to increase even more in the coming years/decades. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the horizon, the impact and influence that all forms of technology will have on every facet of our lives will be, depending on your perspective, either terrifying or exciting. Regardless of your perspective though, it’s absolutely certain that this is going to happen.

Hence, the reason that I’m particularly concerned about a mere five companies owning every part of our online existence is because technology is poised to be an inseparable part of our lives. We are going to be at the mercy of just five companies to govern our lives (note: it may be nine companies though) and most of us aren’t even aware of how this is happening and why it’s important. If they have so much power, what’s stopping them from abusing it? Are there any safeguards in place to abuse this power?

What happens when Amazon knows everything about which products we buy, websites we visit, food we buy, and movies we watch on the one hand, and is selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement and providing web hosting to the CIA and possibly the Pentagon on the other hand?

I have a tendency to ask questions that I never (can) answer, so I defer to you, dear reader.

Do you think this is safe?

See you, Space Cowboy