The Justice Department just sued Google accusing it of abusing its monopolistic power. Facebook (who swallowed up its largest potential competitor: Instagram) may come next. As well as other Silicon Valley giants. As Zephyr Teachout argues in her important new book “Break ‘Em Up” dismantling these monopolies is crucial for creating real competition. She expertly describes a future brave new world of a competitive technology market. But there is one important advantage that we need to pay more attention to.
Breaking up Big Tech monopolies could reinstate us as the masters of our time and reduce technology over-use. With smartphones, social networks and games we now spend a large part of our waking hours attached to our screens. We do not make this choice. Facebook with its likes and comments; Snapchat with its streaks; Apple with its shining colorful phones and endless notifications, they all make sure we keep coming back for more and stay on for as long as possible.
Why do they do that? They need us to spend our time there. This is how they make money. Facebook, for example, collects vast amounts of information about us, like who are our friends or what posts we click on. They use this information to sell very expensive targeted ads. They then need us back on Facebook to spend more time and see these targeted ads. When we are back, they collect more information about us for our next visits. This is a vicious cycle. And the more time we spend there, the more money Facebook makes. I sadly have to admit it works. I keep returning. And though I rarely purchase products that are advertised online the ones featured on Facebook do tend to entice me to buy.
This business model is not unique to Facebook. It is the main business model of the Internet economy. We do not pay for Facebook, Instagram, Youtube or Google money for their services. We pay with our time and data. Other industries may use corn or fuel as their resources. Big Tech uses us. The problem is we are used to getting things for “free.” But changing this business model is key for liberating our time. Right now, we do not choose how much time we spend online. Tech companies do it for us. Antitrust actions that dismantle big tech monopolies and create real competition could finally produce innovative options with new business models. Business models that will not depend on controlling how we spend our minutes, hours, days and even years.