A new extension for Google Chrome has made explicit how most popular sites on the internet load resources from one or more of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon.
The extension, Big Tech Detective, shows the extent to which websites exchange data with these four companies by reporting on them. It also optionally blocks sites that request such data. Any such request is also effectively a tracker, since the provider sees the IP number and other request data for the user’s web browser.
The extension was built by investigative data reporter Dhruv Mehrotra in association with the Anti-Monopoly Fund at the Economic Security Project, a non-profit research group financed by the US-based Hopewell Fund in Washington DC.
Cara Rose Defabio, editor at the Economic Security Project, said: “Big Tech Detective is a tool that pulls the curtain back on exactly how much control these corporations have over the internet. Our browser extension lets you ‘lock out’ Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft, alerting you when a website you’re using pings any one of these companies… you can’t do much online without your data being routed through one of these giants.”
That, perhaps, is an exaggeration. Big Tech Detective will spot sites that use Google Analytics to report on web traffic, or host Google ads, or use a service hosted on Amazon Web Services such as Chartbeat analytics – which embeds a script that pings its service every 15 seconds according to this post – but that is not the same as routing your data through the services.
In terms of actual data collection and analysis, we would guess that Google and Facebook are ahead of AWS and Microsoft, and munging together infrastructure services with analytics and tracking is perhaps unhelpful.
Another point to note is that a third-party service hosted on a public cloud server at AWS, Microsoft or Google is distinct from services run directly by those companies. Public cloud is an infrastructure choice and the infrastructure provider does not get that data other than being able to see that there is traffic.
[Note: This is untrue. They also get to see where the traffic is from, where it goes to, how it is routed, how many connections there are, the size of the traffice being sent. This metadata is often more valuable than the actual data being sent]
Defabio made the point, though, that the companies behind public cloud have huge power, referencing Amazon’s decision to “refuse hosting service to the right wing social app Parler, effectively shutting it down.” While there was substantial popular approval of the action, it was Amazon’s decision, rather than one based on law and regulation.
She argued that these giant corporations should be broken up, so that Amazon the retailer is separate from AWS, for example. The release of the new extension is timed to coincide with US government hearings on digital competition, drawing on research from last year.