Originally in The News & Observer

April 12, 2019

Dramatic changes are affecting the ways we communicate with others. While many of these changes deliver exciting new opportunities, they also come with significant tradeoffs, and we need to ask serious questions about how the largest tech firms are treating our sensitive data.

As technology becomes seemingly ubiquitous, massive companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have become more powerful. Unfortunately, these companies are padding their bottom lines at the expense of our privacy. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our privacy rights to stay connected with others, and we certainly can’t allow these companies to become monopolies at our expense.

Google takes what it knows about you–-what you search for, your beliefs, your relationship status, and what you buy—and sells it to advertisers. These personalized ads are incredibly lucrative, generating $116.3 billion in revenue for Google in 2018 alone and making Google the largest digital advertising platform in the U.S. 

Facebook, as we learned from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, similarly cannot be trusted with its users’ data. Like Google, Facebook is free, and it relies on its two billion users’ personal information to sell advertisements. Facebook can extract private information about your health or finances from other apps you may have on your phone and it can deduce basic information about you even if you are not on social media. In fact, the real customers for Facebook are not the billions of people who use it every day but the data companies that sell our information and attention to others.

Amazon may not be a free service, but it is no better than Google or Facebook. Amazon knew how valuable user data could be, and serious questions exist over what data the Amazon Echo and the Ring Doorbell are collecting. To date, the company’s answers on these questions have been less than forthcoming. Amazon is now responsible for nearly half of online purchases made in the U.S. last year. With exclusive, detailed information on exactly how its customers shop, Amazon has been crushing the third-party vendors whose sales the company has been facilitating for years. 

For example, if Amazon wants to edge out third-party companies who sell bedding on Amazon, it can track what other bedding options customers search, how long they spend perusing certain ones, which items they put in their cart, and at what price point they finally make a purchase. Using that information, Amazon knows exactly how to promote its own in-house bedding in order to draw customers away from competitors. Amazon’s rivals don’t have that kind of information, putting them at a disadvantage. 

These technologies are clearly here to stay, but that doesn’t mean that we have to give up our privacy rights. Furthermore, we can’t let companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon use our data to choke out competition or let them dictate the terms of how our data will be used. One positive step would be to support legislation like the proposals offered by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, which would break up big tech monopolies.

But a federal legislative fix isn’t likely to be signed into law any time soon. To protect us now, we need to take action at the local level. Several states have enacted data privacy laws, including a California law that stipulates that consumers may request that a business delete personal information that the business collected from them. North Carolina could follow their lead and support rules that would protect our privacy while ensuring that we enjoy all of the benefits provided by these powerful communication technologies.

Fortunately for us, we have an Attorney General in Josh Stein who has demonstrated that he takes big tech’s misuse of our data seriously. Whether we think about these issues every day or not, all of us North Carolinians need our Attorney General to stand up for us. 

Chuck Tryon is a professor of media studies at Fayetteville State University. He is the author of three books, including Political TV.