What is Big Tech? (And why you should care)

big tech logos

These are companies you know, and there’s a good chance you use at least one of their products or services daily.

Big Tech refers to four specific companies: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google (each valued at over 1 trillion USD). Sometimes Microsoft is included as the fifth.

Big Tech is used interchangeably with Tech Giants, the Big Four, and sometimes GAFA (an acronym for Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple). The term is usually loaded with implications not only about the companies’ size but also the sweeping influence they have on our digital and offline lives.

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What are the Big Tech companies?

Alphabet Inc. (Google)

Main business: Over 80% of Alphabet’s income is derived from ad sales. In 2020 it generated 147 billion USD in advertising. Google currently controls over 90% of search engine traffic.
What it owns: Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Photos, Nest, Fitbit, YouTube, DoubleClick, Waze, and more
CEO: Sundar Pichai
Value: 1.67 trillion USD
Notable controversy: In 2012, Google settled with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for 22.5 million USD for misrepresenting its use of cookies and targeted ads in the Safari browser. It is also involved in a 5 billion USD class action regarding Incognito mode and an antitrust lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Read more:
Google’s tracking cookies are going away. Is that good?
3.2 million “right to be forgotten” requests since 2014

Amazon

Main business: In 2020, Amazon controlled 44% of the e-commerce market and 70% of the smart-speaker market.
What it owns: Amazon.com, Amazon Prime, Fire TV, Amazon Web Services, Alexa, Ring, Audible, Whole Foods Market, and more
CEO: Andy Jassy (Jeff Bezos stepped down on 5 July, 2021, after 27 years)
Value: 1.74 trillion USD
Notable controversy: The company was recently issued an 887 million USD fine in the EU for violating GDPR rules, which it is appealing.

Read more:
How to opt out of Amazon Sidewalk and stop sharing internet with neighbors
5 ways Amazon spies on you (even if you’re not a customer)

Apple

Main business: Apple’s iPhones make up about 14% of all smartphones around the world, and iPhone sales account for almost 50% of Apple’s annual revenue.
What it owns: Maker of iPhone, Mac computers, Apple TV, and owns Beats, Shazam, and more
CEO: Tim Cook
Value: 2.249 trillion USD
Notable controversy: Epic Games, the makers of Fortnite, recently went head-to-head with Apple, suing it for monopolizing the mobile game transactions. (Apple requires developers to distribute apps for iOS exclusively through the App Store, where it takes a commission of 30%.) The judge sided with Apple, with Fortnite now banned from the App Store.

Read more:
Explainer: Apple’s plans to scan your iPhone photos
App Store’s privacy labels: Fact or fiction?

Facebook

Main business: Facebook generates 98% of its revenue through ad sales. In 2020 it generated 84 billion USD in advertising, up 21% on 2019.
What it owns: Facebook.com, Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus VR, and more
CEO: Mark Zuckerberg
Value: 1.008 trillion USD
Notable controversy: Facebook is no stranger to lawsuits surrounding privacy, most notoriously being accused of giving Cambridge Analytica access to user data, which some say influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. That lawsuit resulted in a settlement, with the U.S. government issuing Facebook a 5 billion USD fine.

The Facebook Whistleblower

In 2021, a Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower leaked documents, known as the Facebook Files, that revealed how the company consistently chose profit over public safety. The day after the whistleblower, data scientist Frances Haugen, revealed her identity on 60 Minutes, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp experienced an unprecedented outage of more than six hours.

Read more:
10 times Facebook violated your privacy
Guide to Facebook’s new privacy settings
Facebook wearables are coming. Would you want them?

How does Big Tech affect me?

The Big Four tech companies are grouped together not just because of their staggering valuations, but because of the considerable effect they’ve had on issues of privacy, free speech and censorship, national security, and law enforcement. Of the myriad issues raised, there are three that come up consistently:

Big Tech collects and uses your personal data for profit

For the most part, Google and Facebook provide their products to users at no monetary cost—instead, you pay with your personal data. This data of your preferences and behaviors is in turn used to serve you highly targeted ads.

But the tides started to turn with the EU’s GDPR law; other countries have followed suit. The U.S. recently issued an executive order aimed at cracking down on the collection and use of consumer data and anti-competitive practices within the Big Tech landscape. Some companies are taking the initiative, too, especially Apple, which has battled the FBI in court to protect user privacy and has introduced privacy features such as App Tracking Transparency on iPhone.

Big Tech censorship influences what you see

Nowhere has Big Tech’s powers to limit or control what content you see been more apparent than on January 6, 2021, when Twitter and Facebook suspended Donald Trump’s accounts during and following riots at the U.S. Capitol.

But while political conservatives frequently argue that they are unfairly censored by Big Tech, at least one prominent study has shown this to be untrue. Perhaps more grim is the fact that censorship is applied to all kinds of content. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the various and evolving terms of service for each platform have been unevenly enforced against a wide spectrum of people and groups.

With the reach of a public carrier and none of the restrictions or liabilities, Big Tech is curating what you see online without consequence. These private companies are driven by profit but play a large part in determining speech freedoms and democracy in most countries—however unwillingly.

Big Tech’s anti-competitive tactics mean less choice for you

Amazon has been called out for its treatment of third-party sellers, often developing its own in-house versions of popular products and offering them for free or cheap, thereby undercutting competitors. Apple and Google have both been accused of antitrust violations regarding the App Store and the Google Play Store. In response, the U.S. has introduced the Open App Markets Act in an attempt to allow smartphone users to download apps outside the Apple and Google ecosystems, and help small developers avoid the commission.

Should Big Tech be broken up?

There has been significant effort to break up Google, with the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit. Microsoft faced a similar suit in the late ’90s. All of the other Big Tech companies are also in the crosshairs of the U.S. Congress.

Breaking up Big Tech, or implementing more regulations in general, would help other businesses compete and take away some of the power that Big Tech wields over our lives. However, some experts fear that breaking up big companies will inhibit innovation, while others argue that small businesses benefit from the services provided by Big Tech.

How to limit Big Tech in your life

The reach of Big Tech companies means that it’s become difficult to use the internet without interacting with at least one of them. There’s not much an individual can do about the Big Tech monopoly, but there are steps you can take to protect your privacy and your data, and embrace digital freedom without censorship.

  1. Make sure you’ve updated your privacy settings.
  2. Avoid the use of third-party cookies when you’re browsing.
  3. Using a VPN when accessing the internet could make your digital footprint smaller. However, Big Tech companies are able to easily connect your activity to your identity whenever you are logged in to their sites.
  4. Delete your Big Tech accounts. Find out how.
  5. Use alternative services:
    Big Tech censoring you? Try a distributed social network
    Best video-sharing alternatives to YouTube
    The 4 best encrypted email providers for extra security
    The best messaging apps for privacy and security

Do you love or hate Big Tech? Let us know in the comments!

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