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Should we fear the rise of GAFAMistan?

November 10, 2016.
For the acronym lovers out there, here’s a new one: GAFAM. It refers to the hegemony of the Big 5 of IT and the Web: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.


For the acronym lovers out there, here’s a new one: GAFAM. It refers to the hegemony of the Big 5 of IT and the Web: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.

GAFAM is ubiquitous and its influence is pervasive. Many concerns have been raised about it, especially with regard to data collection. Big Brother is no longer the stuff of fiction, according to Tristan Nitot, the author of the book Surveillance:// : “Our every step in cyberspace is tracked, recorded and analyzed, and our profiles are continuously being bought and sold. […] The concentration of actors and commercial interests has created a worldwide monitoring industry.”

From trips to trades, penchants to purchases, the entire lives of most Western Internet users are monitored, parsed and cross-referenced. As this phenomenon is still relatively new, it is difficult to analyze what the full impact of all this data will be, or how permanent it is on the Web.

In fact, the dominion of GAFAM is not limited to the Big 5, but extends to all of its satellite companies: YouTube, Outlook, Skype, Dropbox, Instagram, Android, Nest…

The dangers of GAFAM

The following are the main concerns raised about GAFAM, be it due to its supremacy or to its centralized, “closed” nature. The issues go far beyond privacy concerns.

A brake to innovation. For companies big and small, competing against Google or Apple is a titanic struggle. GAFAM companies wield their power creatively to stifle competition, for example by controlling supply chains or limiting the opportunities afforded to independent mobile application developers.

Monetization. If you don’t pay for a product, that means you are the product. In 2014, Facebook made US $12.76 in advertising revenue per user – and next year, this figure should reach US$17.50. Multiply this by 1.7 billion users, and you get the idea. And this is just one example among many.

Subjectivity of information. With such a tightly-controlled Web environment and such highly-evolved targeting techniques, it isn’t surprising that the content curated for us, be it articles, people to “follow” or even advertising and purchase suggestions, is so highly personalized. This can be both an ideal situation and a slippery ideological slope.

Censorship. Who decides which images, videos, books and other content merit free circulation? Some GAFAM companies are known for refusing to disseminate or promote content containing, for example, non-pornographic nudity.

Espionage. This is neither science fiction nor paranoia. The risk of having one’s data intercepted by the American government, even for non-Americans, is all too real, due to programs like PRISM. These practices, to which GAFAM and other companies submit, are justified by the authorities on antiterrorism grounds.

Data warehousing. It is difficult to tell what will happen to all this data if these services die out, or if some other company tries to lay its hands on it. It seems that even supposedly erased data is never completely erased.

Can we boycot them?

In an era when most people (and companies) use the products and services of most, if not all, of these companies on a daily basis, it seems unrealistic to think we can opt out of the system. Indeed, who among us could now live without their smartphone, internet search engines, social media, email, and on-line shopping? Even the experts are at a loss to propose viable solutions.

But to conclude on a more positive note, let’s remember that the current ecosystem can be as much of an opportunity as a threat. Just take a look at Framasoft, a French association dedicated to providing alternatives to GAFAM by offering free and open software, applications and even games. This organization is gathering speed with its “De-google-ify Internet” campaign, supported by a highly engaged user community.

Take heart, indomitable seekers and developers of alternative software!