Jennifer Brody is the U.S. Policy and Advocacy Manager at Access Now.
In today’s interconnected world, it is nearly impossible to function in society without relying on a tech tool made in the USA. Trying to sell something? Use Facebook marketplace. Want to start a business? Google has a platform for your micro-targeted ads. This excessive concentration of power has helped solidify Big Tech’s reign over the world, making it much harder to hold these companies accountable for facilitating human rights violations, such as attacks against human rights defenders in the Philippines and ethnic violence in Ethiopia.
For this reason, antitrust reform in the United States is imperative for the defense of global human rights. Digital rights defenders around the world — from Ukraine to Namibia and Indonesia to Argentina — are taking a stand and calling on the U.S. Congress to immediately pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act. While breaking up the monopolies is not the silver-bullet solution to solve the myriad of Big Tech harms, it is an essential piece of the puzzle, just like comprehensive data protection law.
Big Tech Imperialism is Real
There is no denying that U.S. Big Tech companies exert outsized influence around the world. Owned by Meta, Facebook has over 2.9 billion monthly active users globally and hundreds of millions of their users are not in the U.S. India has the highest number of Facebook users in the world, at a staggering 329.6 million. Perhaps most jaw-dropping is the fact that about 37% of all people on the planet are on the platform.
And not only do the number of users illustrate Facebook’s dangerous dominance — the fact that so-called “Global South” countries depend more heavily on Facebook than “Global North” countries should also give us pause. When I was living in Costa Rica, I tried to avoid creating a Facebook account, but in the end begrudgingly gave in because the vast majority of local businesses and organizations I encountered had only a Facebook presence — no websites. To be an active member of society in Costa Rica, I felt that I needed to be on Facebook. It didn’t feel optional, as it does in the United States.
To add insult to injury, Meta also owns WhatsApp. While people in the United States generally do not rely on WhatsApp for text messaging and commerce, a sizable percentage of the “rest of the world” does. And Meta also owns Instagram, which has over 1.21 billion users globally including 230.25 million users in India — its largest market. Meta has been able to further solidify its dominance online thanks to its ability to self-preference and build in interoperability across its products. This makes it next-to-impossible for smaller ‘privacy by design’ companies to compete.
Yet another example of U.S. corporate imperialism — YouTube, owned by Alphabet, like Google — has over 2 billion users around the world, and about 80% of its traffic is not from the United States. Globally, of the 5.22 billion smartphone users worldwide, approximately 3 billion people rely on a Google Android device. Android smartphones have penetrated over 190 countries, including Bangladesh, where nearly 98% of the population owns an Android device. Like Apple and its iPhone app store, Google exercises unchecked gatekeeper power in determining what apps are allowed on its Android app store and where in the world they are accessible.
Big Tech is Responsible for Facilitating the Violation of Human Rights Globally
Big Tech platforms are well-known for the facilitation of disinformation and attacks against freedom of expression around the world. Ukraine was met with dangerous lies about Russia’s war that spread like wildfire on Facebook, Brazil battled against false narratives on WhatsApp that tainted its presidential election, and the Myanmar people fell victim to the military’s use of Facebook to incite violence and commit crimes against humanity. What’s more, in Iran, bots and trolls on Instagram have attacked women human rights defenders and the company’s content moderators have silenced Persian-speakers. And YouTube has played a role in facilitating extremist Hindu attacks against Muslims in India.
Big Tech’s erosion of freedom of expression is made all the more harmful by the fact that the business model these companies share — harvesting deeply personal information about people to serve advertisers — is arguably a human rights violation in and of itself. People around the world cannot enjoy their fundamental right to privacy with Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, and Google slurping up their location data, search history, and more. To make matters worse, the United States — where these companies are based — has no federal data protection law.
In sum, a very small number of U.S. tech companies exercise outsized influence over our human rights in the digital age, and this needs to change. If a company controls a market and has no real competitors — thanks to years of anti-competitive practices — it has little to no incentive to care about the human rights implications of its content moderation policies, data collection practices, and more. No matter how harmful Big Tech’s impact is on society around the world, these companies know their real customers — advertisers — will keep coming back. They also know that their users will stay, since effectively they have nowhere else to go. Big Tech owns the world’s eyeballs, and, with no competition to challenge and offer a way out from their abusive practices, they won’t change their ways unless regulation ends their dominance.
This is why it is high time for the United States of America’s imperialistic Big Tech reign to end. This starts with passing antitrust reform to terminate Silicon Valley’s chokehold over free expression and human rights around the world. There is no time to waste.