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The Growing Oligopolies of the Internet

Everyone’s familiar with the recent and incredibly controversial decision surrounding the repeal of net neutrality by the FCC – it’s been plastered on most websites for the past few months given its pertinence to the commercial state of the Internet itself. The repeal has sparked outrage ranging from derogatory and satirical characterizations of the FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, to more measured moves by individual states to keepnet neutrality intact. Phil Murphy, the newly elected governor of New Jersey, for instance, has signed an executive order in direct contradiction of the repeal.

Walking Down The Path Towards Dystopia

But what does net neutrality have to do with the oligopolization of the Internet? Well, I think that while the Internet has already tended towards an economic structure where a small group of companies control a large swath of the online audience, the repeal of net neutrality has hastened the growth of that control.

To prove this point, initiatives allowing ISPs to aggregate and sell the data that they tacitly collect from you have been in the works months before the more obvious push against net neutrality emerged. USA Today reported in April 2017 that ISPs can legally collect and sell your data as a result of a Congressional resolution signed by President Trump. More recent reports indicate that transparency about data caps and fees that were required of ISPs are now moot. Anyone still remember when SOPA and PIPA were a thing?

Don’t you ever get the uncanny feeling that less and less control of the Internet is in the hands of its end users? Or the feeling that corporations are slowly manipulating your behaviors through very sophisticated tracking and analytics? Has the Internet changed for the worse over the past two decades for you in a way that you can’t really put your finger on?

Who’s In the Driver’s Seat

In one of my recent conversations, a friend confided to me that he no longer trusts anything and always uses a VPN when browsing the Internet now. I questioned him on if he was just being a tad paranoid about the entire situation. I mean, does the repeal of net neutrality along a few other tweaks to certain legal rules surrounding the provision of Internet services really call for that level of protection and security?

After doing some research and thinking about it, I don’t think he was being unreasonable. I stumbled across this example of a couple accusing Facebook of passively listening to their conversation and then changing the ads to target the subjects of their conversation. The video is particularly concerning if you’re an average consume. This probably wasn’t the “invisible hand” that Adam Smith was envisioning when he wrote one of the most famous books on capitalism and the free market, The Wealth of Nations.

I don’t really want to get into a discussion of intentionality and the existence of the power of corporations over Internet end-users, but rather, I’ll leave the decision up to you. Just think about it intuitively and ask yourself: “How many big websites are there that I visit and use on a daily basis?” Try to name more than 20 or 30 websites (subsidiaries like Instagram or Whatsapp for Facebook don’t count) in five minutes. Think about your browsing habits – do you find yourself unconsciously looping back to the same website when you’ve just closed it?

The Death of Autonomy

The integration of our lives with the Internet starts on the basis of two primary needs in my opinion: (1) the need to share information and (2) the need to connect with others in a social setting. In a deregulated and non-manipulated setting, the fulfillment of such needs through a service platform like the Internet may lead to creativity and generativity beneficial to a society as a whole.

However, with the advent of the smartphone and the narcissism fueled by popular social media tags, alongside the emergence of online retail giants (i.e. Amazon), the popularization of the Internet has led to a deviance due to the interests of a coincident commercialization of that service. The profit-incentive that drives creativity and collaboration is the same one that drives unethical exploitation of human behaviors to give rise to systems which trap their users into a cycle of spending rather than one that forces companies to compete against each other, innovate, and produce better products and services.

At some point, we need to ask ourselves if we’re still in control of the Internet, even as a disjointed population of end-users or else soon we might not even be able or want to ask it anymore.

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