Friday, 5 March 2021

Big bad tech?

The Beginning

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In January, Facebook announced what it thought would be just another privacy policy update to its WhatsApp messenger app. Little did they know that less than a week later, mns of users would have abandoned the service in favor of Signal, a rival messaging app that touts privacy and security as one of its key features. In a world of ubiquitous internet surveillance, the backlash was surprising, and perhaps indicative of a growing scepticism towards the power of the world’s largest technology companies and their reach into our everyday lives.

Technology isn’t always a force for good. Whether we’re talking about the commodification of our personal data, the surveillance of our devices, or dangerous social media habits, our use of technology comes at a cost.

We’re not telling you to reach for the tinfoil hats: While we’re not particularly shy about complaining about the excesses of Big Tech, we’re not flying the flags for Luddism either. Sure, some of the ways in which the digital economy has intervened in our lives is downright creepy, but burning down the edifice — one of the greatest and most instrumental in human history, we might add — will never be the answer. Instead, keeping check on how we engage with the digital world, as consumers, professionals and businesses, will help us ensure that the internet remains a tool for personal advancement and not a vehicle for regression [/end soapbox].


Your browsing history, your online purchases, your likes and dislikes, these are the currencies that power the data economy, a vast digital ecosystem of buying and selling growing so rapidly in tandem with the “normal” economy that it has been referred to by some as a “second economy” that is gradually superseding the existing one we know. The business of gathering, sorting, selling and buying data constitutes the data economy, a field unquestionably dominated by the Big Five: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. In 2017, The Economist called data “the world’s most valuable resource,”

How big is the data economy? It’s difficult to estimate, and though different sources disagree on the economy’s size, the consensus is it is rapidly growing. In its worldwide datasphere forecast, Market research firm IDC predicted that the next three years of data creation and consumption will eclipse the past 30, and forecasts 175 zettabytes (1 Zettabyte = 1 trn Gigabytes) of data use by 2025.

OK, so how can we measure it? A UN publication estimated that in 2017 the size of the data economy in the EU — based on the total revenue of all firms in the business of buying and selling data — was only 0.49% of GDP, while in the US it was equivalent to 1%. Estimates from Statistics Canada — calculated based on the value of stock of companies in the data business as well as their software and intellectual property — put the value of the data economy somewhere between USD 157-218 bn, meaning the size of the data economy in the US would be between USD 1.4-2 trn, or 5% of the US’ stock of private physical capital. There is no unified methodology for sizing up the data economy as of yet, and so estimates will vary.

Who benefits the most from the data economy? Large firms are already at an advantage as they have more resources to collect more data, thereby growing their ability to collect, and profit off of, even more data. The inequality also runs along geographic lines, with America and China accounting for 90% of the market capitalisation of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms, and Africa and Latin America accounting for only 1%.

This is an economy reliant on surveillance for its survival: Gone is the era of the internet as an anonymous space; the monetization of our behavioural data requires that we leave digital footprints everywhere, raising a plethora of ethical questions about the boundaries of privacy in the digital age. Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, who popularized the term surveillance capitalism to describe this new business model, warns that the ubiquity of data collection from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep (and indeed, sometimes as we sleep) risks turning us into automatons. The ambitions of the data economists, she argues, is to perfectly map out our behaviours in order to influence and predict the next pair of shoes we buy, the next restaurant we eat at, and our next holiday destination before we even know it ourselves.

And of course, the personal is used for the political: Our browsing data can be used for commercial ends, such as pushing a particular brand and ads onto our screens, but is also now being deployed for more sinister purposes. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated how the use of and manipulation of data can be used to undermine democracy, while you only need to look at China’s Social Credit System to understand how it can be wielded to construct an entire system of social control.


The customary social media sucks article: Yeah, we get it. Hating on social media has almost become a cliche these days as its detrimental effects on individuals and society has become more widely understood. But we could hardly have an issue on healthy tech habits and ignore the elephant in the room. Yes, social networking is great for connecting with people, sharing experiences and shopping. But overuse may not be great for our mental health, it can have deleterious effects on our societies, and it makes it harder to hold down the number of adherents to the David Icke school of political theory. Everything in moderation, and all that.

Think of social media as a stimulant that’s good for you in small doses but bad in excess: The analogy is more apt than you may think, given that the psychological phenomenon of social media addiction has been compared by some specialists to substance abuse. Social media use acts on our reward system, triggering dopamine release whenever we accrue likes or receive positive feedback, not unlike the experiences people have when sitting at the roulette table or using narcotics.


Overuse may mean more depression: Some social psychologists believe that the rising rate of depression among young people in the US is correlated with the rise of social media. From 2011, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of teenagers experiencing bouts of depression, a trend that seems to coincide with the explosion of social media use. Some studies have claimed to show evidence of direct causation: this paper by Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge randomly assigned users into two groups, one which continued to use social media and the other which reduced their use, finding that those who reduced their usage reported better moods and fewer symptoms of depression. Others say, though, that there is not enough evidence to heap all the blame on social media, and argue that by focusing on the potential negatives we won’t be able to harness the power of technology to change our lives for the better.

The Earth is flat and Joe Biden is a lizard creature: Social media is also proving itself an effective vehicle for spreading disinformation, anger and toxicity, and, with political tensions running high in recent years, this has been a key topic in social psychology research. The main crux of this issue is that social media can give an exaggerated voice for extreme and radical opinions. As the documentary The Social Dilemma observes, much of the blame for this can be placed at the doorsteps of our friends the surveillance capitalists, whose algorithmic tools by design funnel people into echo chambers and feedback loops, recommending them content that at best entrenches their worldview and at worst results in radicalization.


From Zoom and Slack to Netflix and YouTube, most of our lives have been spent in front of a screen during the pandemic. The number of social media users in Egypt increased 7% in 2020 to 42 mn people, while we clocked in an average of 7 hours, 21 minutes on the internet every day and around 3 hours for each of social media and watching TV. Meanwhile, in the US, people now spend more time on their screens than they sleep on average, with adults adding one hour of digital time in 2020 for an average of 7 hours, 50 minutes per person.

So how do you disconnect?

Monitoring your screen time: If you actually tracked how much time you spend in front of a screen it will probably surprise you. You can do this — and measure how your time is being spent — by using in-built screen time functions in smartphones, or download apps to help you focus on productive tasks such as Forest or Moment.

Kill those push notifications: Let’s face it. It’s not strictly necessary that you need to know your like count in real time, or to be told constantly about new Reddit posts. Preventing some of these apps from distracting you with constant notifications will go a long way to helping you reduce your screen time.

The phone ban. Taking the drastic step of banning phone use at the dinner table, for example, is likely to prove controversial with other members of the family. But you can set for yourself phone-free spaces or even days of the week. Try leaving your phone on the kitchen table while you sleep. Or think about allocating phone-free times of the day.

Don’t be too hard on yourself though: Being in front of a screen has become a “survival tool” in the covid era — as the Washington Post puts it. Screens have become our portals to employment, education, and community during the pandemic, and even the World Health Organization (WHO) encouraged people to play video games to stay at home. Isolated seniors used family video calls to avoid loneliness, depressed individuals participated in group yoga sessions, and many people used their laptops to upskill themselves. So perhaps it’s not about the time spent on screens, but about what you’re doing when you’re using them.


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Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in February:

  • Hikma Pharma is odds on to acquire GlaxoSmithKline’s Egypt commercialization and manufacturing assets after the British pharma giant knocked back rival bids by Rameda and Acdima.
  • Egypt sold USD 3.75 bn in USD-denominated eurobonds in its first int’l debt sale of 2021 — an issuance that was 4x oversubscribed.
  • The Central Bank of Egypt left rates on hold during its first meeting of 2021.
  • Non-oil private sector activity in Egypt continued to contract in January, albeit at a slower pace as falls in output and orders tempered, according to IHS Markit PMI figures.
  • Shares of Orascom Financial Holdings’ (OFH) began trading on the EGX on 17 February after the company was spun off from Orascom Investment Holding.


There are still steps you can take today to better protect your data from the watch of unwanted parties and our Big Tech overlords. For starters you can check if you’ve ever been subject to a known data breach at haveibeenpwned. The site scours the web for your email address and informs you of incidents where your data might have been exposed to the public in a known security breach. If your findings prove disturbing, you might want to consider a password manager like LastPass or 1Password, that generate stronger and more complex passcodes than Password123 (no judgement). Making a habit of using two-factor authentication, which asks you to verify logins through your phone or a separate device, on your email and social media accounts can significantly reduce the risk of hacking as well. Here’s how to get that done on Gmail and Facebook.

Your online footprint is everywhere: Even if you’ve secured your online accounts, data generated from your clicks and searches follow you everywhere on the web. You could consider downloading some adblocker browser extensions like UBlock Origin and Privacy Badger to Google Chrome, which keep ads from tracking your whereabouts across the internet. Alternatively, you could scrap your current browser altogether in exchange for something safer like Mozilla’s Firefox, which is not in the business of data collection or selling ads like Chrome.

Looking for an extra layer of privacy? Invest in a VPN: Using a virtual private network or VPN might have sounded like the rallying call of holed up conspiracy theorists at the start of the decade but the technology, which obscures your IP address and helps you bypass website blocks, has been picking up steam in recent years as concerns over data security have grown. There was a particular surge in use during the first round of covid-19 lockdowns last year, and according to one study, Egypt saw the largest increase of anywhere in the world, jumping 224% on the year before. Express VPN (Blocked), Surf Shark, NordVPN (Blocked) and Proton are all paid services that repeatedly rank as the most reliable networks in the VPN space. Some other free of charge VPNs, like Hotspot Shield, do exist out there but are markedly less reliable than paid services.

What about El Whats? If you’re considering jumping ship from Facebook-owned WhatsApp Messenger over concerns following their most recent privacy update then Signal might be your best bet. The messaging app uses end-to-end encryption much like WhatsApp — which means no one can see the content of messages except for the sender and recipient — and has seen support from a wide range of privacy rights activists.

An alternative search engine you say? Head over to DuckDuckGo. The search engine doesn’t provide anonymity — your internet service provider will still be able to see which websites you’re visiting — but it doesn’t track your search history, it blocks third-party trackers, and doesn’t hit you with targeted ads.


Society leads, the law follows: For decades, US antitrust laws — originally designed to curb the power of 19th-century corporate giants in railroads, oil and steel — have long been hailed as “the Magna Carta of enterprise,” and now may be turned to rein in the monopoly power assumed by the world’s biggest tech companies. Experts often argue over what should be subject to regulation. Should guidelines look at content moderation? Should legislators push for more security and data transparency? Is an antitrust watchdog the right tool?

2020 was the year that policymakers began to pay attention: Responding to the growing so-called “techlash” against the influence of tech companies, regulators in the US, EU and the UK are all now considering resorting to anti-trust action. Beijing is cracking down on its own cluster of tech bn’aires, and, in an attempt to protect its faltering press, Australia is attempting to force Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for the content they use on their platforms. In the same way that Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire was broken up a century ago, antitrust action could result in some of the largest technology companies being split into smaller entities to protect the market from anti-competitive practices. The US Justice Department is considering whether to force Google to sell its Chrome browser while a group close to the Biden White House is recommending that the administration expand the antitrust investigations into Google and Facebook, and advocate breaking them up.

The creator of the internet has called for a rethink: To save the internet from becoming a tool used for dystopian ends, Tim Berners-Lee has called for “data sovereignty” to be made a foundational concept of how we use and operate the web. This would mean giving users control of their data and personal information — and putting in place mechanisms to prevent people’s information from being harvested without their informed consent. Companies would still be allowed extract, store and analyse personal data, but only after the individual agrees to let them.

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