How much is your personal information worth? Enough to turn a $2.7 billion antitrust fine issued by the European Union into a financial footnote for a company like Google, which had a $90 billion revenue in 2016.
Enough, in fact, that any future antitrust probe is more likely to be about unfair control of that personal data than any traditional market monopoly.
This looming issue has roots in Google’s very business model. Its most popular services are free to use but the search giant also runs the world’s largest online ad platform, which accounts for 88% of its revenue. It serves billions of ads per day, and earns anywhere between $1-50 for every ad that is clicked on.
This is where your data comes into play. The more Google knows about the users that interact with its services, the better it’s positioned to make its business more profitable by displaying ads that will result in clicks.
That’s why Google has one of the most aggressive data collection programs. It has created a vast empire of linked services and applications that are mostly free and encompass everything that a user does on the internet.
Every time you make a search on Google, every video you watch on YouTube, every time you use Gmail, edit a document in Google Docs, download an app from Google Play or query a location on Google Maps, you’re giving away a tiny bit of your information to Google, which appends it to a digital profile that it has create about you. It uses that digital profile to make its services more useful and personalized to your needs. But it also uses it to predict and possibly affect your future actions, and to show you content that will result in profit for its business.
Google is not alone in the space.. It is competing for your data with other tech titans such as Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, each of which have their own far-reaching online commercial platforms.
Facebook, the largest social media platform, has access to the information and interactions of 2 billion monthly active users. Microsoft owns the most popular desktop operating system. Amazon, runs the biggest online retail business and owns Echo, the smart speaker that is sitting and listening to commands in millions of households.
As they jockey for more user attention and time, these tech titans are constantly making forays into new fields in order to stay ahead of their competitors. The ubiquity of online platforms, social media, smartphone applications and connectivity allow tech companies to further expand their empires and gather even more information about users. Smart home appliances, wearable tech and connected cars are some of the new domains that the tech giants are fighting over.
It is fair to say that, in the not-distant future, everywhere you go and everything you do will be under the watchful eye of one of these big tech companies. And the gloves are off when it comes to doing whatever it takes to stop the competition from getting hold of your data.
The race to get ahead in scooping up the most user information can have dire consequences for user privacy. For instance, a few years back, the retailer Target was able to figure out a teen girl’s pregnancy before her parents by tracking customer data. To be clear, Target’s data collection in nowhere near as invasive as any of the companies mentioned above.
Companies like Google know much more about you, which potentially includes intimate information about your political and sexual orientation, health information and more. As the providers of the content you consume and service you use, their data collection capabilities are even more profound than your Internet Service Provider (ISP). And they have a history of sharing that information with government agencies without your consent.
As our digital and real lives coalesce, the role of giant tech companies becomes more prominent. Their interests will move beyond the realm of commercial and enter other domains. Testament to the fact is the nuanced role that social media has had in shaping public opinion and swaying the results of elections around the world in the past year.
If these companies ever decide to abuse their power, with so much insight on our personalities and so much control over the content we consume, they’ll be able to make a huge impact. In a lengthy feature published in Scientific American earlier this year, scientists and thought leaders laid out the threats that the vast amount of data we’re generating can cause if it falls into the wrong hands.
China is leading the way in monitoring and rating citizens based on their internet activities. This partly explains why the popularity of VPNs in China has risen dramatically in recent years. This is a snapshot of what the future might look like if these companies manage to take hold of all our data—especially if one of them manages to establish dominance and diminish the others.
Google’s ongoing battle with the EU is over unfair trade practices. Similar troubles might be awaiting the search giant in the U.S. as more and more lawmakers are calling for a revision of antitrust laws to reflect the digital revolution. But while the debate is of economic nature, the consequences can be far more pervasive, especially for user privacy and consumer information.
And as we have seen, even gargantuan fines do precious little to stop the onward march of these tech giants, as they gorge themselves on our personal data.