Data privacy at Big Tech is still a mystery to observers

It is a well-established fact that personal digital data knows no borders. Many of us know that the data we provide – in some cases voluntarily, but in most cases involuntarily – to apps and services such as Google, Facebook, TikTok, WhatsApp and others is controlled by companies that are not not necessarily located within the country’s borders. we can use them from. Governments around the world have recognized this. They are accelerating their efforts to control the digital information produced by their government agencies, businesses and citizens. Governments are increasingly setting rules and standards for how data can and cannot move around the world, driven by national security and privacy concerns of their citizens, as well as the interests national economies. Their goal is to achieve “digital sovereignty”.

As I’ve written about in this space before, effective scrutiny of user data, if it occurs, could pose a new trade barrier across the globe. Unlike the rest of us, the Chinese won’t find this particularly troublesome. China built a “Great Wall” many years ago around its homegrown internet companies. This wall has largely kept out Western companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber through draconian laws and other market moves. Facebook is outright banned in China, as are many other Western services.

For most people in the democratic world (read outside of China), new restrictions are unlikely to shut down popular websites. But users may lose access to certain services or features depending on where they live.

It seems that it is the “catastrophic stupidity” of our time that allows this. Umair Haque, in a blog post titled “The Age of the Fool” that appeared on the Medium.com website about four years ago, defined our current times as “catastrophically stupid”. and political issues and chastised readers that it was us, the individuals, the world over who foolishly chose all of this and made our present world a world of “futility, emptiness and hollowness”. This is why our stupidity, according to Haque, is “catastrophic”.

The supposed stupidity of citizens aside, nation states have recognized the need to control the data of their people. The European Union has led the way with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force just over 4 years ago, on May 25, 2018, to strengthen the privacy rights of 740 million Europeans. However, he seems to have done very little so far. Wired magazine reports that the non-profit organization Noyb (noyb.eu/en) registered its first complaints under Europe’s flagship data regulation the same day. These complaints allege that Google, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram forced people to give up their data without obtaining proper consent.

Noyb is still waiting for final decisions to be made, the magazine said. According to him, “Four years after the GDPR took effect, data regulators tasked with enforcing the law have struggled to act quickly on complaints against Big Tech companies and the murky online advertising industry. , with dozens of cases still pending.While the GDPR has vastly improved the privacy rights of millions of people inside and outside Europe, it has not eliminated the worst problems : Data brokers continue to store your information and sell it, and the online advertising industry remains littered with potential abuse.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times paints an opposite picture. He says the EU GDPR has had an extraordinarily broad impact and countries have cracked down. For example, he says that in France and Austria, customers of Google’s Internet measurement software, Google Analytics, which many websites use to collect audience figures, were told this year to no longer use the program because it could expose the personal data of Europeans to American espionage. And last year the French government canceled a deal with Microsoft to handle health-related data after authorities came under fire for awarding the contract to a US company. European officials have pledged to work with local businesses instead.

In my view, however, none of the views of GDPR and similar legislation in other countries are entirely correct, as the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Interestingly enough, I think the biggest impact in this area was Apple’s decision last year to block cross-site tracking with the release of Apple iOS 14.5 and leave the choices to the consumer rather than the giants of Big Tech like Facebook. Facebook owner Meta Platforms fell shortly after Apple released updated operating software in mid-2021, when Meta warned that its third-quarter performance (on a calendar year basis) could face significant headwinds due to low ad conversions related to this decision. In September thereafter, after an executive at its Facebook subsidiary said privacy changes caused it to underreport conversions, its shares fell further. In February 2022, Facebook said Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature would cut the company’s sales this year by around $10 billion, which is a huge number by any measure.

There will be a lot of maneuvering in this space before nation states are able to find common ground, and it is likely, at least to some extent, that we will see the rise of “national” internets. In my view, however, it’s far more likely that the internal corporate war between Big Tech’s FAANG group of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google will ignite inside.

Siddharth Pai is co-founder of Siana Capital and author of “Techproof Me”, a guide for professionals navigating today’s lightning-fast technological changes.

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Lance B. Holton