Big Tech’s indiscriminate data-harvesting practices are an ethical outrage in themselves, but systemic social inequality determines who is most affected by these practices. Microsoft’s and Google’s operating systems are installed on low-priced devices, but users pay with their data instead. (I focus on Microsoft and Google, rather than other companies like Facebook or Amazon, because users can avoid using Facebook or Amazon, but they can’t use a phone, tablet, or computer without an operating system.)
Apple has made commitments to protecting users’ privacy, but its products have a relatively high entry cost. The cheapest MacBooks cost around $1000 new, and that’s just in the United States. New iPhones are similarly expensive, even with monthly payment plans. Apple’s prices are even more prohibitive in other markets. MacOS, iOS, and iPadOS can’t be run on non-Apple devices unless you go the Hackintosh route, which has become increasingly difficult. In contrast, you can get a Windows PC or Chromebook for a few hundred dollars. Windows itself isn’t cheap, but the cost of the licence is built into the cheap PCs it’s installed on. That’s how Microsoft gained its market dominance in the first place: it licensed MS-DOS, and later Windows, to multiple computer manufacturers. Android phones are similarly affordable. Unfortunately, Google, and to a lesser extent Microsoft, have used their desktop and mobile operating systems to gather large amounts of data on their users. In the Global South, Android and its rapacious data-collecting practices rule. People who use Android devices as their sole means of accessing the internet are a captive audience for Google and device manufacturers that also install data-harvesting apps. Android Go, a lightweight version of Google’s flagship operating system, is explicitly geared toward people in lower-income countries.
Granted, technically inclined users can install Linux on just about anything, but that requires the knowledge, experience, and interest to install an alternative operating system. If a user’s goal is to browse the internet, write documents, send emails, and use social media, the jump to Linux may be an insurmountable barrier. People can also buy used iPads, Macs, and iPhones, but buying used devices is riskier than buying new ones, especially if they’re out of warranty. For lower-income users, the consequences are higher if you make a risky financial decision. In most cases, the only clear choices are Windows or Android—and their concomitant privacy violations.
I’ve avoided Windows as a primary operating system for nine years, and I flatly refuse to use Android. I exclusively use Apple devices, but if I couldn’t afford to do so, I’d install Linux on my computers and an alternative operating system on my phones. My avoidance of Android and Windows is a product of financial privilege and technical knowledge. Others may not have the same choices.
Coverage about the privacy violations that Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon have focused on the ethical problems of unaccountable data harvesting on its own, but haven’t examined this problem using a socioeconomic lens. This obscures one of the most significant problems with these companies’ use of customers’ data: they’ll get most of their information from people who cannot opt out. This is a form of technological class exploitation. Billion-dollar companies make obscene amounts of money by selling the data of people who can’t afford to opt out, or don’t know how. It’s a classic feature of unregulated capitalism, where profits always come before people. Low-income users may not buy first-party applications, high-end Windows versions, or top-of-the-line phones, but they have plenty of data. Most of these captive customers will also put up with advertising if it means they can keep in touch with their family, friends, and colleagues.
Technology should be affordable, accessible, and inclusive, but users should have a reasonable expectation of privacy, too. Unaccountable exploitation by rich and powerful tech interests has caused poor and working-class people to pay for this accessibility with their data. Tech writers portray the shift from Android to iPhones, or Windows to Linux or Mac, as a painless transition without financial consequences, but that’s far from true; jumping ship may be extremely risky or downright impossible. Coverage of unethical data-gathering practices must therefore consider the individual, regional, and global socioeconomic factors that force people to use Android and Windows.