Why Your Boycott Isn’t Breaking Up Big Tech

Featured Image: Morning Brew

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There are two different responses I’ve heard in the aftermath of the tech antitrust hearings in late July. And I admit, growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, the voices I’m surrounded with are likely to be fraught with bias. But it seems like those of us who grew up alongside the big tech industry are the quickest to call it out for what it is. There’s the stance that I find myself overwhelmingly met with — that these companies and the monopolistic chokehold they have need to be regulated, and fast. But there’s also this other one, arguing that the fact that it’s not feasible to fully remove even one of these companies from the list of goods and services we consume on a daily basis is proof that tech giants are the backbone of a flourishing society; that their grip on essential infrastructure protects us from the consequences of a vague, yet frightening alternative. They both have truth to them — we are wholly (and obliviously) reliant on big tech in almost every facet of our lives, but the more powerful they get, the more freedom they have to exploit the new markets that wouldn’t exist without them. 

Kashmir Hill reports on an experiment she carried out for the tech news site Gizmodo, creating a private network that blocked all her devices from sending or receiving data from the internet addresses controlled by four major tech giants: Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple. She describes in incredulous detail the extent to which her activity on and off-screen was derailed after she tried to avoid soliciting the same companies in real life. Blocking Google slowed the entire internet, as nearly every website uses it to supply fonts, track users, and run ads. And since Google and Apple’s software have largely dominated the smartphone market, the options for hardware were comically limited, constraining her to the use of a Nokia 3310. Uber and Lyft both use Google Maps to navigate, online orders take longer to be delivered, social networking becomes nonexistent, and sites are unable to differentiate you from a bot.

In short, we will never have the sustainable choice to boycott these tech giants — and therein lies the problem. 

It’s a common ruse used by critics of government regulation in this industry:

If you hate Amazon so much, just don’t buy from them.

So you’re going to throw out your iPhone?

Delete your Facebook and then talk.

What are you going to use, Bing?

But Hill’s study is living proof that the average American cannot afford to eliminate the consumption of even one of the big five’s products and services. To attempt to do so and broadcast your part in dismantling the monopoly without calling every politician that represents you and demanding a launch of further hearings and investigations on tech giants is not only ineffective, but performative. While it may give you a rush of empowerment, a sense of moral superiority, for what you believe to be an active effort in resisting their power, your individual boycott is unlikely to have any effect on any of the tech giants. It is far too personal of a consumer choice, and not nearly bold enough a political one.

Individuals attempting to eliminate big tech from their lives do so in the hopes of being noticed, applauded, and admired briefly for their efforts — until the next big corporation slips up and there’s a new company to boycott. University of Pennsylvania professor Maurice Schweitzer discusses the dilemma boycotters run into — setting their sights on attracting media attention rather than targeting the incomes of those that they are protesting. The rise of social media, like Facebook and Instagram themselves, has coincidentally become big tech’s secret weapon. Consumer boycotts, in all their efforts to gather steam on a national scale, rise and fall in fashion, rarely gathering a coalition large enough to ignite policy change or spur a financial loss to the corporations they protest.

You think the CEOs that appeared at the hearing are fearfully coming up with a plan to be more socially responsible, while you continue to shop at Amazon-owned Whole Foods, vent your disgust with Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony on Facebook-owned Instagram, and view ads that go straight to Google’s data bank every time you shop online? Fordham Law School associate professor Zephyr Teachout puts it best when she writes, We don’t ask people to boycott libraries in order to change library rules; we don’t ask people to boycott highways to ask for them to be safer; we don’t demand that you buy only bottled water while protesting water-utility governance.” Big tech has permeated our lives in a way that they never should have been able to, and have grown far too quasi-governmental for individual boycotts to trigger any semblance of corporate accountability. Therefore, they must be treated like a dangerous politician run amok, rather than a narrow-minded family-owned diner around the block. Your consumer habits do not determine their fate, but your political action undoubtedly could. 

At the end of the day, if you have the privilege to actively avoid big tech, all its mainstream products, its services, in the disguised and subtle influences that take an eye much keener than mine to spot — go for it. But don’t let that be all you do. The more you can do to make your voice heard in Congress, the better of a chance you have to live in a world where every corporation meets the same standards of accountability. Idleness from tech giants in the face of sparse boycotts speaks volumes to your ineffectiveness, but the same idleness from Congress speaks to their own ineptitude. Continue to build momentum, to tell people about your frustration, and build forces that will demand immediate political action with you.

So while you won’t catch me finding a new search engine, going off Instagram, or tossing out my iPhone, you will find me doing everything I can to ensure that the hearings we witnessed in July certainly won’t be the last.