The 2020 election was a doosie. Everything leading up it was a doosie. And, as of this writing, it isn't technically over yet. One thing is clear, however...
There's quite a bit of animosity directed toward "big tech". As I write this post, there's a viral move of people setting up new social media accounts on Parler.
What I would like to do is talk about why this is happening. Why I think it is a very good thing. It goes way beyond a partisan fit of anger. Further, I want to talk about how all of us can lessen the grip that big tech has on our lives and our online businesses.
NOTE: I know full well that, for many, one's opinion on this might come along U.S. political leanings. However, I want to expressly put all that aside. The nature of the issue with big tech is bigger than that. Big tech plays a fundamental role in everything we do as bloggers. We cannot have tunnel vision about the situation.
This is, of course, my opinion. You can consider this an editorial. But, it's my site. So I can write whatever I want. 😉
What Is "Big Tech"?
For many, it includes Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. They control most information technology, the devices we use, and information flow.
Google is an absolute beast. They control about 95% of all mobile search traffic across the internet, and about 88% of all desktop search traffic. Google, of course, hooks you into a full ecosystem with free services then proceeds to essentially invade your privacy all day and makes money doing it.
Facebook is, by far, the "big kahuna" when it comes to social media traffic.
Apple and Microsoft do have control over information flow to a lesser extent, but these companies also control most of the devices we all use to get to the information to begin with. To me, this isn't as large a concern as long as there's no limiting controls that limit competition. And both companies have been guilty of it. For instance, there's been a lot of complaints about Apple forbidding apps in the App Store unless they can have their substantial cut of all revenue.
Some lump Twitter into this mix - and there's a lot of problems with Twitter, too. Speaking of which...
Why Big Tech Is A Problem
A lot of people are crying out about tech censorship - and that's a very real thing. But, there's more going on than just that.
#1 - Constant Privacy Invasions
As the old saying goes, if you're not paying for it, then YOU are the product.
And, in pretty much every way, you are indeed the product with these companies. They make money selling data and ads. They sell your attention.
The tentacles of Google are just jaw-dropping. Besides the almost exclusive control over everything you see on their search engine, think about this:
- When you're using Google Chrome, it gives Google limitless capability to track everything you do. Did you know there's an active lawsuit against Google saying that, even in Incognito mode, they're still tracking your activity and sends it to Google? Would you even be surprised?
- So many people are voluntarily handing all of their day-to-day communications to them via Gmail, Google Voice, and more.
- You're telling Google your whole daily schedule, via Google Calendar
- You're letting them into your personal life and showing them all your photos, in Google Photos
- Not to mention the sheer volume of mobile devices out there running Android.
You are the product. Google wants to know everything about you. So, they can sell it and make deals using your information. That is their business model. And they put out these "free" services specifically to hook you on every aspect of your life.
Like a kidnapper luring a child to their truck using a big pile of candy.
Facebook? Do we even need to get into the privacy issues there?
Does any of this matter? There's always that old saying about it not mattering if you have nothing to hide.
That's your choice. But, that's sort of the point. It should be your choice. Something you choose consciously, not just scroll through the terms of service and hit "agree" to everything they ever wanted.
I think data privacy matters for multiple reasons:
- Can you actually trust these organizations with ALL that information?
- It makes it easier to track you, profile you, segment you... manipulate you. Even without you knowing.
- Are they handing that information to any other organization? Or a government?
Your information should be your's. And only your's unless you expressly allow it to be shared.
#2 - Censorship
When you hand most information flow of the internet into the hands of a few corporations, you think that won't be taken advantage of?
Censorship and gentle "swaying" of information has been going on for a little while with Google, but it sure did accelerate and jump into the limelight with this election. In fact, it became much less subtle and more obvious.
Unfortunately, this can become a touchy subject to some because of the still-heated nature of the last election. How one sees this is often dependent on political leaning, however it shouldn't be.
The way I see it, the first amendment is.... FIRST. And I, as a guy in the communication business, am almost an absolutist when it comes to free speech.
You can get a taste of the issue of tech censorship by watching The Creepy Line. It is actually a very enlightening documentary if the idea of search manipulation is new to you.
Facebook has banned and shadow banned a lot of pages, groups and personalities. Many without any real reason (since Facebook is pretty known for not providing any clear explanation for anything they do). And it is very one-sided, politically. Twitter has taken it to another level. Youtube has been tossing channels like crazy. The list goes on.
It became really obvious when Facebook and Twitter jumped up to forbid sharing of the New York Post story about Hunter Biden. Regardless of what you think about the relevance or veracity of that story, the fact that these two companies decided to outright BAN sharing is a true moment of "jumping the shark". As Matt Pearce, from the LA Times, put it:
Facebook limiting distribution is a bit like if a company that owned newspaper delivery trucks decided not to drive because it didn’t like a story. Does a truck company edit the newspaper? It does now, apparently.
Whether you think it is all legitimate targets or not, the censorship is very real.
Being that these are privately held companies and not government makes a big difference. There's no first amendment obligation for them here. What we have here, however, is a really creepy line. It is corporate censorship at a whole new level. Truly global monopolies sitting astride public discourse, as Matt Stoller puts it in this NYT article: Tech Companies Are Destroying Democracy And The Free Press.
Isn't the internet supposed to be about access to information? What does it say about the state of the internet when the information you see and have exposure to can be controlled by a number of global mega corporations that are so few that I could count them on one hand?
#3 - Anti-Competitive
I believe some of these companies really should see antitrust litigation brought against them. They have achieved such size and position in the market that they can now buy up and/or push out competition - all while publicly taking the high road and acting as innocent as a school girl on a playground.
The good news is that there seems to be movement on that front.
I believe Google and Facebook are facing increased attention on this. Google already has active anti-trust litigation on them. For it's part, Apple is likely going to see issues for the anti-competitive nature of their App Store and Amazon is going to see antitrust litigation for it's anti-competitive practices in ecommerce.
All this is good.
Healthy economies are based on real competition.
In U.S. history, anti-monopoly rules were used in the oil industry, railroads, and steel to safeguard competition and protect from total market dominance by any one company. Later, it was also used on AT&T so they didn't control phone communications.
As the world and economy has changed, the names are different. During the industrial age, the problem might have been Standard Oil. In the information age, the problem is Google, Facebook and other big tech companies.
As Matt Stoller also put it in his NYT article:
The collapse of journalism and democracy in the face of the internet is not inevitable. To save democracy and the free press, we must eliminate Google and Facebook’s control over the information commons. That means decentralizing these markets and splitting information utilities from one another so that search, mapping, YouTube and other Google subsidiaries are separate companies, and Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook once again compete. It also means barring or severely curtailing advertising on any of these platforms. Advertising revenue should once again flow to journalism and art. And people should pay directly for communications services, instead of paying indirectly by forgoing democracy.
Whether these companies should be barred from advertising or not is a matter of debate - and not something I necessarily agree with. But, I certainly agree with Matt on the basic nature of the problem here.
Centralization & The Promise of Decentralization
The entire promise of the internet was to enable sharing and the free flow of information. That all the world's information would be available at your fingertips. Democracy would flourish, dictators would fall... all because of freedom of information.
Those were the promises. Instead, a handful of corporations have gobbled up most of the players to the point where they are digital giants that now have you in their bubble. A bubble they selectively manipulate depending on what they feel like doing and what they want to sell you (and for whom).
And people have gotten so use to being coddled like that that... if they ever venture out of the bubble, they immediately retreat back into their safety net. The rest of the internet is... evil and unsafe. Or so they think.
The answer is not more regulation. We do not want government regulations over social networks or online speech. All that does is uses the club of government to grant a seal of approval to some speech and not others. It could lead to licensing or new FCC rules aimed at blogs, new media and podcasters. That would be very dangerous.
It is a closed and censored internet.
Like China's "great firewall".
The answer is DECENTRALIZATION.
We need competition. We need choice. And we need it to be ingrained into the very structure of the internet itself so that it isn't a matter of chance or hoping the government stays out of it. It needs to be something that happens whether they like it or not.
Ultimately, I believe we will see a brand new Internet structure. It has already begun, powered by blockchain and cryptocurrency. This "Internet 2.0" will be an internet where not only information can flow freely, but so does value.
Neither information nor the flow of money will be capable of being censored or fully controlled.
The rules won't change on a whim.
And in a world where middlemen have the controls while those same middlemen have violated trust... we need an internet that doesn't require middlemen.
You will own your own information and will control who sees it - and why. Any data you do put out there will be done with your awareness, will be de-centralized (meaning no more mega privacy breaches would be possible).
What You Can Do Now
We're in the early days of the move toward a decentralized internet. Think of the current internet, but back around 1990. That's about where the decentralized internet stands in terms of maturity. But, trust me. It will get there. As sure as the sun will rise.
Even Tim Berners-Lee, considered the "inventor" of the world wide web, is hot on the mission to re-make the internet into his original vision. The entire blockchain industry will remake it. Ethereum, for instance, already has major inroads into become a platform for a new, decentralized internet.
But, what do we do in the meantime?
All of us are quite capable of decentralizing OUR OWN internet usage. By not having all your eggs in one basket. And by not having your entire digital life controlled by Google and Facebook.
It doesn't mean you stop using them. That's impractical. It just means... you're not reliant.
Would you invest your entire investment portfolio into ONE stock? Of course not! You want to be diversified! Well, we can do the same thing online.
What About Those Of Us With Blogs And Online Businesses?
As a blogger, do you enjoy being in a position where you feel you have to sit there and worry about Google's every move?
Where we have to sit there and guess on the inner workings of Google's every search update?
Where bloggers literally have to decide what to discuss... because of concerns over being ranked in Google? Or potentially being penalized by Google?
What kind of damn internet is that? Like we're all worried about gaining the approval of our all-knowing father figure with our blog posts.
Google's a great tool. So is Facebook. All these things are perfectly fine tools. But, putting yourself into a position of dependence on them is just.... stupid.
None of these companies should have the ability to make or break your business - or control who gets to see what you create. I don't care if you're discussing some hot topic like politics... or something as innocent as basket weaving. No single company should be able to determine whether your idea will work.
The only solution, for the time being, is to not forget about this... and to make a point to set up your digital life and your business where it doesn't have 1 or 2 primary failure points.
Ways To Become Less Reliant On Big Tech (The Alternatives)
Decentralizing your own digital life starts with a decision. Is this important to you? Are you going to do it?
In a few ways, it may be a tad more inconvenient. But, I find it is actually pretty simple to do the basics.
Remember, the point here is not to remove Google and Facebook from your life. It is simply to not grant these companies the sole ability to control what you see or to turn you off.
Stop using Chrome. In fact, I would go to a browser that is not put out by one of the major corporations, but that's just me. 🙂
For me, it is Brave Browser all the way. Works just like Chrome, but without all the creepy. It is MUCH faster than Chrome. It is privacy focused, so it blocks ads and tracking cookies by default. There's a lot to like.
Firefox is a great option. Many people like Opera. There's quite a few solid web browsers out there. In my opinion, however, the worst one you could possibly use is Google Chrome.
I know a lot of people use Gmail or one of the other big tech web-based email freebies. But, man... I would think about switching.
I know this is one of those areas that can feel extraordinarily inconvenient. But, I did it and it wasn't too bad.
I switched to FastMail. And while I use FastMail as the system, my actual email addresses are all domain-based. This is perfect for business, but not only that it means I don't have any reliance on FastMail's domain name. I could switch to another service if I wanted and I don't have to go and change my email address on a hundred different sites.
For me, removing reliance on Gmail was a priority. Ever heard the story of how Jordan Peterson got removed from Google? All his email and everything just went away and he had no idea why. Jordan Peterson is a pretty known figure, too.
The motto is.... NEVER have something as critical to day-to-day life be firmly in the hands of a corporation that can turn you off whenever they please, without anybody even knowing, for no reason other than the fact that they decide they don't like you.
Further Reading: Read about why I quit Gmail and my process of doing so.
I no longer use Google by default. Almost all of my web searches now use DuckDuckGo.
DDG used to be immature and I found myself having to go back to Google to find something decent. But, it has improved a ton. DDG is now my default search engine both on my computers and on my mobile device.
I do find Google has better indexing of things like forums, so there are times I still go and use Google. But, it is intentional. I have to specifically go to Google.com to use it.
Some people like StartPage. Some use Bing. There are others, but I think DuckDuckGo is a great search engine that doesn't track everything you're doing, doesn't censor results, and doesn't sell any data (because it collects nothing to sell).
Right now, there's the appearance of a mass "exodus" from Facebook and Twitter... to Parler. To be clear...
I've been around awhile. I've seen a lot of "next big things" sputter off into nothing. So, I don't know whether Parler will become a thing or not. But, here's what I do know...
Social media needs competition. Big time. More than we have now.
Right now, Facebook can make or break media companies. They have that much control over social media traffic. And that's not healthy.
So, while I would never even attempt to make the case for you quitting Facebook or Twitter, I think having your stake planted in alternatives and supporting the idea of alternatives is a great thing. Here's some options:
- Parler. Right now, this one gets a lot of attention because a lot of U.S. conservatives are flocking there as a reaction to the issues on the big tech sites. For this reason, Parler is very right-wing and very politically focused. For it to have a chance, it will need to become less political and more balanced. Plus, they're going to need to improve their interface and infrastructure. It may happen.
- MeWe. This site has a much better setup and interface. It is more like Facebook, in fact. This might be one to watch.
- Gab. More Facebook like, but like Parler is quite politically focused right now and very right-leaning. The platform and business model holds promise, but like Parler, I think it would need to mature and even out and get less political for it to gain much traction.
- Mastadon. An open source network with a lot of potential. It is already quite successful and has inertia in the marketplace. Mastadon is actually a little more reflective to the potential of a decentralized social media.
- Reddit. Pretty well known. Not immune to censorship issues, however.
- Cake. Promises "better conversations". Looks small, and honestly I had never heard of it until I was doing research for this article.
- Telegram. A solid alternative to WhatsApp.
It will be hard to upset the current balance of power in social media without antitrust activity. I really hope it happens. But, WE are the ones that give them that network effect. We cannot remain blind to the dangers of the current setup.
I don't care what kind of things people say to bash social media alternatives. Those who love the status quo will make them seem dangerous. Certainly, bad things have been said about Parler and Gab because of the political nature of recent censorship. But, one way or the other...
We clearly need social media competition. I firmly think Facebook needs to be taken down several notches for the health of the world.
Youtube is the big kahuna. It is owned by Google, however, and they censor and sway content as expected. It is a great platform, no doubt. Lots of variety and a lot of viewpoints. I love Youtube. 🙂 But, like most of these categories, it is about not being totally reliant and not letting one corporation control your viewing.
Here are some Youtube alternatives:
- Rumble. This looks to me as one of the best Youtube alternatives out there right now. Has some interesting monetization options, too, for content creators.
- Bitchute. Decentralized, peer-to-peer video hosting. In many ways, it is the anti-Youtube. For that reason, you're bound to find content that you won't find elsewhere because of censorship. You might not like some of it. But, the option is there.
- DTube. Another anti-Youtube. In many ways, it is designed to look like Youtube. Totally decentralized and based on blockchain. This type of setup is, honestly, the future.
- DailyMotion. One of the larger Youtube alternatives. Been around a long time.
- Peertube. Kind of like D.Tube.
- Vimeo. Vimeo is, of course, another old-timer in the space. I use it for all of my own video hosting for The LAB. Most of the public videos are documentaries, animations, short films, or other higher quality content.
Best Practices For Online Businesses
When you're running an online business and/or a blog, then you're obviously going to be using the big tech companies. It simply isn't realistic to ignore Google, Facebook or Twitter if you're in that situation.
I think the big thing is simply not to have your business be completely dependent. A few ideas would be:
- Use domain-based email and run it through an independent service such as FastMail. I personally would not use Google, but that is your choice.
- Remember, your email list is a community that cannot be taken away and cannot be banned. These kinds of considerations are likely not applicable to most of us, but I have dealt with some people who are discussing things where the idea of censorship is real. Mailchimp, in fact, recently came out and started banning accounts. This is a risk of having your email list hosted on an external service. So, perhaps an option is to use something like FluentCRM to host your list in-house. See my article on running your email list from inside WordPress.
- Have a self-hosted blog. Yep, no surprise here. But, if you're reliant on an outside service like Youtube, you are reliant. On your own blog, that's your's. Now, for embedded video content, you should back up your videos and perhaps cross-post to other providers so you're not reliant exclusively on any one service.
- Don't focus on follower counts on the big socials like Facebook and Twitter. Those follower counts are stupid vanity metrics anyway. Plus, the more you build these networks into the core of your business, the more reliant you are. I think this is a great sector to "be everywhere", distribute evenly, with your email list as the core of your audience.
- If you run a community, bring it in-house and don't use something like Facebook Groups.
- If you use paid traffic, by all means... use Google and Facebook. They're clearly the big players currently. But, don't ignore other options such as Bing, Pinterest, LinkedIn. You could even look into up and coming options such as Brave Ads, or watch for new promotion opportunities on the alternative social networks. The idea is to be spread out and not have your entire revenue stream reliant on one ad network.
When we run blogs and online businesses, we go where the people are. And whether we like it or not, big tech is where the people are for the most part.
So, in no way are we (yet) able to cut them from our online life. But, we CAN be intentional enough about it to at least not be set up in such a way where your business is reliant on any one of these companies.
Further Personal Best Practices
So far, I have listed a bunch of alternatives to big tech. I've also talked about some things to keep in mind when it comes to the setup of your business.
Now, let's wrap this up with some solid practices for your own online life.
- Use domain-based email that is your's, does not need to change, and can be brought with you to any email service you wish to use.
- Don't use Google or Facebook to log into accounts and services and instead create a real, independent login. While it might be convenient to use your Google account to log into things, it also makes you much more reliant on that Google account.
- Use a VPN on your internet connection for enhanced privacy and security. I personally use ExpressVPN.
- As already mentioned, ditch Google Chrome. Use a privacy-focused browser such as Brave.
- Strongly consider using a privacy-focused search engine such as DuckDuckGo. Why continue to tell Google your every thought via that search bar?
- Keep local data backups of anything you keep on the cloud, such as photos. Oh, about that...
- Do you really want to store all your family memories on a company that relies on your personal information to make money? Yeah, looking at you, Google. I don't recommend using Google Photos. I personally keep photos on iCloud (as well as locally, of course). Apple makes their money with hardware and selling the iCloud service... and that's a different intention than Google.
OK, let's wrap this up...
My Final Thoughts On All This
I don't hate big tech. But, I do hate over-centralization.
This isn't how the internet was supposed to work.
Not only that, I think these companies have abused the trust placed in them to spy on you, sell your data, shape your thoughts through censorship, and stifle any competitors.
Google and Facebook are, to me, the modern day Standard Oil or AT&T. And I think it is important for major antitrust action on both and to break them up. I also think the U.S. needs to see new laws on data privacy and data ownership.
Right now, I think there is an over-cozy relationship between some in government and these companies. This - combined with the speed of their growth - has allowed them to get into this position.
It isn't healthy for competition, for freedom of expression.. or really anything.
The coming move to decentralized technology will ultimately de-fang a lot of this. I do expect antitrust legislation to make a dent as well.
In the meantime, though, each of us can do something about not putting ourselves into a position of reliance. And to be aware of the nature of the issue.
And it is with that in mind that I wrote this article.
If you have any suggestions you'd like to add, post them below in the comments. 🙂