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Thieving the commons, Big Tech-style

Thieving the commons, Big Tech-style

The Digital Alarmist

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Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 21:22 IST
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 21:22 IST
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The world wide web has been around for about 35 years. However, public perceptions notwithstanding, the internet itself has been in existence for almost twice as long. What started out as a network communications system specifically designed for the military has evolved over the years into the internet as we know it today. Militaries all over the world have two things in common -- one, none of them is a democratic organisation and, two, any sharing of information is done strictly on a need-to-know basis. Unfortunately, these military characteristics seem to have rubbed off on today’s internet.

In military parlance, a C4I system refers to a Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) system which provides information and data analysis capabilities in real-time to military commanders in support of their field operations. The so-called C4ISR system (the S and R stand for Surveillance and Reconnaissance, respectively), an enhanced version of a C4I system, can obtain, analyse and integrate data from sensors, satellites, radar and drones.

Guess what, our internet is also a C4ISR system, but the Cs have different connotations. The four Cs stand for capitalism, consumerism, corporatism, and coercion. Big Tech may say all it wants about promoting democracy but in reality, it has weaponised the internet to seize the commons. In thieving the commons, the only winners have been Big Tech and a few non-IT companies which have been coerced into submission by Big Tech’s tactics. The spoils of war always go to the victors, don’t they? If you don’t believe me, consider the following examples that prove my point.

OpenAI, the newest poster child of Big Tech, is the prime example. In training the large language models which are central to OpenAI, the company has relied, without attribution, on data obtained from numerous websites, principally Wikipedia, newspapers and magazines, government agencies, educational establishments, social media postings and user blogs. When large newspapers with substantial financial resources challenged the modus operandi of OpenAI, the company managed to work out sweetheart deals with the aggrieved publishers for use of their data. No such luck for the rest of us web users – there are millions more of us than there are of them. We have no recourse but to meekly submit to the 24/7 stealing of our data -- voice, images, text and video.

The minute we post anything on the web, it is construed as being in the public domain and hence free for the taking. ‘Free enterprise’ has come to mean privatising anything that is public. Waterways, airwaves, data, mass transit systems, etc. When money talks, people listen. And Big Tech’s billionaires do talk a lot -- e.g. Musk, Zuckerberg, Gates -- and shape government policy, be it in politics, public health, economics or defence.

The real impact of the sharing of information, a virtual commodity, can be seen in the sharing of physical resources such as vehicles and houses. Uber, the ride-sharing company, has managed to decimate the taxicab industry and the public transportation sector and emerged as a monopoly supplier of rides by subverting all local regulations governing public utilities. In the process, the company has also been very successful in gouging the public through its dynamic pricing policies (‘surge pricing’ – a marketing strategy that has now found its way into all manner of products, especially airplane and rail tickets) and capitalising on the ‘I want it now’ impatience of consumers. Interestingly, Uber doesn’t own the vehicles that have made it a multibillion-dollar company. Likewise, Airbnb, another multibillion-dollar company, doesn’t own any of the rooms it rents out.

Of the top 10 richest people in the world, only two are not in Big Tech – Warren Buffett, who buys and sells companies, and Bernard Arnault, a purveyor of luxury goods catering to the well-heeled. Since neither most of you nor I can afford to buy any of Arnault’s offerings, we can only window-shop, and that too only on the web.

Consumerism for all, thanks to Big Tech, which of course owns the commons – be it the WWW or transport systems or whatever other commons, or platforms, you can think of.

Share and share alike? Dream on. The ‘greed is good’ life philosophy which permeated every aspect of US society during the Reagan era of the 1980s, faithfully copied by the Thatcher government in the UK, has metastasized and can now be found in every corner of the globe. The early 1980s is when Microsoft got started (before then, it was just IBM dominating the computing industry) and there has been no turning back for Big Tech ever since.

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