Over thousands of years throughout humanity’s known history, people have been fascinated with the concept of solitude, and to experience that they merely had to stay away from others. For instance, French thinker Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592), who was known for being a staunch advocate for solitude, isolated himself from people for years at the beginning of his life. He spent years in self-isolation in order to give himself room to think and contemplate, before his writings began to appear in 1571. His writings were considered a breakthrough and a prelude to the Renaissance.
If Michel de Montaigne was alive today and wanted to repeat this experience of isolation, I would say he can achieve that by refraining from dealing with four giant tech companies; Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple.
Some researchers have practically experimented with the idea of boycotting the products of these companies, and they managed to experience De Montaigne’s true solitude by being entirely cut off from the outside world.
Most of these companies adopt a unique business model; they started by providing a smart interface for users with limitless capacities and seamless access, before expanding the interface into a giant inclusive platform. With time, these platforms developed monopolistic tendencies and producers and consumers started relying on them exclusively.
Eventually, these platforms became indispensable, which gave them the chance to impose their own conditions and reap massive profits.
In 2020, Covid-19 led to an unprecedented loss in revenues for many businesses, and paralyzed economic activity with varying severity across most sectors; however, these companies seem to be thriving now more than ever, exceeding all expectations. Recent data reveals that five giant tech companies achieved revenues of more than 1 trillion dollars this year, and that their combined profits increased by 24 percent. Facebook’s profits alone amounted to about $20 billion, and Google recorded a profit of more than $34billion.
Lately, however, the world started noticing a serious flaw in the system. If we think about it, some of those giant companies do not even produce the content they offer, but they merely provide an interface for their display. It is the producers who invest their money and efforts into creating this content, and yet they never receive a fair share of the absurdly exaggerated profits.
Shortly before the end of 2017, nine major European news agencies submitted a request to the European Union to discuss the possibility of imposing fees on influential "social media" companies, primarily Facebook, to be paid to compensate these agencies for the use of the content they produce and spend large sums on, only for Facebook and other platforms to republish and profit from without making any effort or paying any expenses.
It took about two years for the European Parliament to pass a law that opened the door for news content creators including newspapers and media outlets to demand copyrights for their content published through those platforms. This is the law by which the French Competition Authority (FCA) obtained a court order from the Paris Court of Appeal requiring social media sites to pay content creators in exchange for publishing their content.
Last month, good news began to surface when Google signed an agreement with the French press association, Alliance de la Presse d'Information Générale (APIG), which includes prominent newspapers such as Le Figaro, Liberación and Le Monde, to pay them for the use of their own content. This agreement has reportedly also been concluded with a number of British newspapers. These agreements have a significant legal basis that derives its legitimacy from the principle of "neighboring rights" in force in Europe and internationally. Neighboring rights, also known as related rights, preserve the rights of broadcasting organizations when they broadcast creative or artistic content.
Last week, a fierce battle erupted between Facebook and the Australian government, which adopted a bill requiring the popular website to pay national newspapers for using their news content. Facebook responded by blocking all Australian news feeds, including pages of official entities whose statements are part of the country's public interest and safety mechanisms. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the move to ‘unfriend Australia’ as arrogant and disappointing.
Facebook tried to impose a fait accompli policy, by attempting to twist the Australian government’s arm into submission. However, the Australian government sought to rally international support, by reaching out to other international leaders, and succeeded in reopening the negotiations and demand a satisfactory solution.
In this battle that is still going on, these giant corporations with their dominant monopolistic activities have revealed their true colors and showed the world their flaws and pitfalls. For this reason, governments must unite in order to negotiate a more just approach in this regard.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.