Big Tech’s indiscriminate data-harvesting practices are an ethical outrage in and of 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 you can avoid using Facebook or Amazon, but you can’t use a phone, tablet or computer without an operating system.)
Apple has made commitments to protecting users’ privacy, but Apple 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 costs being distributed with a payment plan. 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. 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 – rules. 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 towards people in lower-income countries.
To be fair, technically inclined users can install Linux on just about everything, but that requires the knowledge, experience and interest to install an alternative operating system. If you just want a computer to browse the internet, write documents, send email 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. If you don’t have a lot of money, 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. 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. Many other people typically have no other choice but to use Windows or Android if they can afford to own their own devices at all.
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: people unable to opt out are going to be their primary sources of information. 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 that means they can keep in touch with the people who matter most to them.
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. More coverage of unethical data-gathering practices must take into account the individual, regional and global socioeconomic factors that force people to use Android and Windows.