Think of it as a case of David versus Goliath. Like the Biblical Shepherd, smaller businesses and privacy-focused nonprofits are trying to offer internet users an alternative to the services of a handful of internet giants collectively known as “Big Tech.”
Their products range from message encryption applications and email services to personal web browsers. They have different business models. But they have the same goal: to give individuals better control over what happens to their data.
As Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has drawn renewed attention to the fact that the internet’s architecture is increasingly owned by a powerful few, executives told DW they hope the backlash against Musk will help their companies gain momentum.
“The question now is: how do we ensure these alternatives get the attention they need given the strong monopolies held by tech companies?” said Meredith Whittaker, president of the nonprofit Signal Foundation, which oversees the development of the Signal encryption app.
Andy Yen, CEO of Proton, maker of the encrypted email service Proton Mail, compared the situation to that of an early environmental movement that had lobbied for decades before awareness of their cause became mainstream.
Why Big Tech is under fire around the world
“Now we’ve suddenly reached a point where it’s socially unacceptable not to care about the environment,” he argued, adding that online privacy awareness will one day reach a similar tipping point. “It may take 20 or 30 years, but change is inevitable.”
That sentiment was shared by Mitchell Baker, CEO of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation and its for-profit subsidiary, which develops the Firefox web browser.
“We’re in the early stages of a big change, and those changes take a long time,” Baker said. “But we are building towards something.”
It looks like Big Tech and collects less data
But how do you convince people to ditch Big Tech’s convenient, mostly free services for privacy-focused alternatives?
Signal’s strategy involves making its messenger look and feel like its major competitors, such as market leader WhatsApp. That’s one of the reasons why a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit recently launched a feature that allows users to post videos, images, or text that will disappear after 24 hours.
Beneath the surface, however, the app collects as little data as possible, President Whittaker stressed. In addition to encrypting communications — which services like WhatsApp do — Messenger doesn’t track metadata about who communicates with whom, when, or keep records of the names or pictures people choose for their profiles.
Whittaker worked for Google before organizing employee protests and eventually resigning in 2019. Credit: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo/Picture Alliance
Against the “business model monitoring”
And yet, like the story of David and Goliath, it is an unequal struggle. Signal doesn’t just work with a fraction of the workforce at WhatsApp, which was bought by Meta, then known as Facebook, in 2014. The nonprofit also needs to find alternative sources of funding for its free service, which Whittaker says costs “tens of millions of dollars” a year to maintain.
WhatsApp generates most of its revenue from paid business accounts and in-app payments. But the company also shares some data about its users with Meta, based on where in the world they are located — and Meta gets the lion’s share of its profits from selling targeted advertising based on customer data.
That wouldn’t be an option for Signal, Whittaker said. Instead, the messenger mainly relies on donations. But as awareness of what she calls Big Tech’s “surveillance business model” grows, Whittaker believes that “among the many people using Signal, some are willing to donate.”
The role of regulators
Andy Yen, CEO of Geneva-based software company Proton, said the problem with Big Tech isn’t that it’s big.
“The problem is that Big Tech is using its size to entrench a status quo that’s bad for the average user and bad for the world.”
As companies like Meta or Google have evolved from low-quality startups into the most powerful corporations in the world over the last two decades, they dominate their respective segments of the internet market.
This, according to Yen, makes it difficult for Internet users to choose alternatives to their services. The hurdles many phone users face to download his company’s encrypted e-mail program are a case in point, he argued.
Andy Yen has become one of the most vocal critics of Big Tech in the tech industryImage: Janosch Delcker/DW
Proton Mail is said to be an alternative to email providers like Google’s Gmail, which make money by showing their users targeted ads based on their online activity, among other things. However, to install Proton Mail on Google’s Android phones, users must download the app from the tech giant’s own Google Play app store.
“And to use ‘Google Play’ you practically have to use ‘Gmail,’ so we’re in the absurd situation where you have to get ‘Gmail’ to get ‘Proton Mail,'” he said. fair competition”.
In a request for comment, a Google spokesman told DW that while users need a Google account to use the Google Play app store, they can create one without using Gmail.
But Yan insisted that “this is a monopoly” that, he added, “could be easily broken with sensible regulation.” That’s why he’s lobbying lawmakers from Washington DC to Brussels to pass laws that would make it easier for internet users to switch to alternatives and curb the market power of big tech.
Supporting “responsible” technology startups
Across the Atlantic, the San Francisco-based Mozilla Foundation is pushing into the world of venture capital.
The non-profit organization rose to fame in the early 2000s when they developed the open-source web browser Firefox with an online community of volunteers. In less than ten years, the browser has grown to about 30% of the market share. But by 2022, that number has dropped to an estimated 4%, with Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari now dominating the market.
“Open source has gained many things and is now part of many things,” admitted Mozilla founder and CEO Mitchell Baker. “But where we have not won is in the power of what we have created.”
A lawyer by training, Baker is the CEO of the Mozilla Foundation and its for-profit subsidiary, Mozilla CorporationCredit: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA AFP via Getty Images
That’s why the Mozilla Foundation, continuing its non-profit model, is launching a $35 million investment fund for tech startups. The plan is to help a new generation of “responsible” tech entrepreneurs build technology that meets Mozilla’s privacy standards, among other things. Mozilla hopes this focus will become a competitive advantage as the regulatory environment is expected to tighten in the coming years.
Whether the plan works remains unclear, as does whether services such as Signal or ProtonMail will continue to grow.
Signal’s Meredith Whittaker said it’s fair to compare the efforts of privacy-focused tech companies like hers to a David vs. Goliath battle.
“However, we have the power of public opinion behind us,” she said. “There’s a growing understanding in popular culture and institutions outside of technology that there’s a real problem with a business model that puts everyone’s intimate files in the hands of a handful of corporations.”
At least in biblical history, the underdog David defeats his formidable opponent.
Edited by Ben Knight