There is currently a lot of talk about anti-trust regulation of the big tech companies and also how tech companies are invading our privacy. This is all very inter-twined with the ideas of democracy and capitalism and makes the whole discussion very complex. Here, I want to touch on a few concepts in the hope that we can understand the situation a bit better.
The idea of anti-trust
Anti-trust is based on the very painful observation that free enterprise and capitalism by itself can end up hurting the economy. Laissez-faire economics can run amok and end up in monopolies that do not have to compete for customers, leading to a slowdown of innovation and price competition. Anti-trust aims to ensure that there is always a certain level of healthy competition and choice for the customer.
Anti-trust puts a brake on the dealings of capitalism, for the benefit of customers.
The idea of privacy
Tim Cook says that privacy is a fundamental human right. What is interesting however, is that what we today consider fundamental human rights were not always so. 100 years ago, women, let alone people of color, did not have the right to vote even in many “forward thinking” western democracies, including the USA. The United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” exists because these rights are so frequently under attack.
Capitalism nor democracy itself can ensure that our human rights are withheld. In fact, our human rights can be in direct conflict with the interests of companies operating under capitalism or our governments operating under democracy. The idea is that when faced with a dilemma between human rights and our institutions, human rights should take priority.
Therefore, the issue of privacy should not be about which company profits or not. It should be about whether our rights are more important than corporate profits or government espionage. It should be an independent discussion.
Should Apple be prevented from enforcing the “Apple Sign In” feature on apps in the App Store? Should this be investigated under anti-trust? Should Google be excused from delving into the details of your private life, because it can provide you and society with an economic benefit? This all depends on what your views on fundamental human rights are, and whether your rights are absolute or should be balanced against the economy. I personally take the view that our rights should be respected despite any disadvantage it may place on the economy, and that therefore discussions of privacy and anti-trust should be clearly separated.
My proposal is that
- “Apple Sign In” should not be evaluated under anti-trust. Instead, governments should ensure that similar schemes are available from outside Apple, or they should audit Apple to ensure that any information that Apple may obtain from this scheme should be firewalled from the rest of the organization. Governments should ensure that “Apple Sign In” is not used as a Trojan horse to increase Apple customers. Similarly, Google, Twitter and Facebook should also receive audits to ensure that their sign-in schemes are not deceptively undermining privacy. A clear separation of human rights and economic benefits is the only way to ensure that our rights will be respected.
- Any company that deals with customer information should be required by law to adhere to fundamental privacy principles. In the case of massive companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon or Apple, these should be audited so that we know that they are not doing something nasty behind their backs. This is similar to what is required in the Pharma market, despite huge costs, to ensure that the drugs that enter our bodies are safe. In the same way that patient safety is of paramount importance, privacy too should be protected regardless of the economic costs.