How soon after waking up do you check your phone? Do you compulsively refresh your Twitter feed? Can you find your way around without Google Maps? There are many obvious and tactile ways in which Silicon Valley has its hooks in our everyday lives. And as we see Big Tech face increased scrutiny, people are becoming more conscious of their interactions with their products: limiting screen time, quitting Facebook, shopping locally.
But fully divorcing yourself from these companies is a lot harder than you may think, as journalist Kashmir Hill discovered. Because besides our obvious interactions with Big Tech, there are many more invisible ways these products and innovations touch our lives. This is Kashmir’s story of what happens when you shine a light on those unseen encounters.
KASHMIR HILL: I turn off my phone at night, like at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. I just turn it off, which I used to never do. My phone would be on until the battery died. And that would be a very traumatic event. So now I turn off my phone at night. It's not the first thing I reach for in the morning. Whereas before I touch my husband, before I talked to my daughter, I would I just pick the phone up as soon as I woke up and start scrolling through it. I realized I actually hate that. I don't want to start my day every day mainlining the internet through this technology that has been forced upon me by the tech giants in the world that they're creating.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me your host, Chris Hayes. Like everyone in the modern world, I spend too much time on my phone. And I have a lot of self-loathing over that. I'm trying to decrease my phone time, decrease my screen time. But of course, part of the problem with that is that the phone is engineered to make you look at it as much as possible. It's like a casino. There's lots of thought that's gone into how to make it so that even that little click, when you reload Twitter or these little haptic bits of feedback are reaching into your brainstem to tell you, oh, that's a pellet of satisfaction. And they've engineered the device to make you want to look at it as much as possible.
It's the same with the incredibly seamless way that streaming services have figured out to get the little box in there and just seamlessly go to that next episode so that you have to actually go and affirmatively say "No, I don't want to watch another episode." They did that because they had lots of data. They were able to run the human experiments on us, the subjects, to see what are the ways that we can optimize the engineering of what we have to make people use our product as much as possible. So much about the tech world feels like that, I mean, that's what Facebook is doing. That's what Amazon is doing. That's what Apple is doing with the iPhone. At a certain point, you feel like you don't have any actual independent agency or autonomy with respect to the various digital services or digital devices you use.
They're just kind of there and they're just pulling at you and they're getting their hooks into you and you're using them all the time. And there's this question of like, how can you just step away? Can you just stop? I see a lot of people really recently, I think, particularly around phone use. A lot of people deleting Facebook. There's a kind of rising sensation among the zeitgeist, I think, that we should taking individual and collective affirmative steps to kind of step back and fight against all of that engineering that has gone into making us addicted and hooked to and constantly drawn into the world of the kind of digital vortex.
So then the question becomes like, well how can you do it? Can you just get away from these? What if you just don't want to use this stuff anymore? And that brings me to today's guest, Kashmir Hill, she's an investigative reporter at Gizmodo. She's a really, really great tech reporter. I've been following her work for years. I think, as you'll hear in our conversations, she really distinguished her reporting early on for being, I think, far more skeptical of the claims of Silicon Valley than many of the other people reporting on those same companies. Particularly during the frothiest years of rah-rah, cheerleaderism for the way that Silicon Valley was gonna transform the world and be the future of American society.
We're now in a much different place I think, in the way that we think about those companies and about the effects of their products, but she was ahead of the curve on that. And she undertook this deceptively simple project at Gizmodo. And the deceptively simple project was like, "I'm just gonna give up this stuff. I'm just gonna not use it. What happens?" That's it, that's the full thing. And she spun out this incredible reporting project based on that just deceptively simple premise, which as you'll hear is astoundingly harder than that simple articulation of it is. I'm not going to use this stuff. Let's see what happens to my life when I step back from some of the biggest tech companies in our lives. Like our conversation with Stacy Mitchell about Amazon, you're gonna learn a lot about just how ubiquitous big tech is in our lives.
You've been a tech reporter for awhile, right?
KASHMIR HILL: It has been a decade, I think. Maybe a little bit more than a decade. I wasn't a tech reporter when I started. So I don't know when I morphed into a tech reporter but somewhere along the way people started putting me on tech lists.
CHRIS HAYES: And then you've been reporting about Silicon Valley and tech for awhile. It seems to me that tech reporting has changed a ton, particularly recently and as someone who's been a practitioner for a little while, what do you think has changed?
KASHMIR HILL: I think other tech reporters are more like me now. I really did not come from a tech-reporting background. I was at a legal blog called "Above The Law." My background was in law and I got interested in privacy and I was writing about privacy and law and I kinda just backed into technology because I was writing about how our privacy was changing in the modern world and it forced me to start writing about cookies and tracking and all these new technologies that were being developed to track us.
I would say I came into writing about technology from a more critical perspective in terms of how it was invading privacy as opposed to being a person that was kind of covering the business of tech or covering amazing new gadgets. I think people who came from that perspective, tended to be more enthrall of the tech industry. And amazed by all the incredible new things that it was doing and bringing into the world and making possible. And now, I think there's been a shift and those reporters and those publications are far more critical of the tech giants now. And there's more of a backlash in tech reporting. So I would say that overall it's become more negative but I'm proud to say I was always pretty negative.
CHRIS HAYES: You've been a hater from day one is what you're trying to say.
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, I think that's the reason that your work first stood out to me was for that reason when I started reading you on privacy, when you were writing about privacy back in "Above The Law." And your work has been critical and clear-eyed in a way that a lot of tech reporting was not but more is now. To what do you attribute the change?
KASHMIR HILL: One, I think that these companies and it's part of what my series touches on, have just become so much more powerful. And they're not little start-ups anymore. Google used to do amazing searches. Amazon made it easier to buy things online. Facebook helped us figure out who else in our class was hot and ask them out. And now, these companies do so much more. Amazon is powering the backbone of the web. Google is all over the internet. You can't go around online without running into something Google, they control all mapping technology essentially that's used online.
And Facebook bought Instagram and bought WhatsApp and controls most of the social media that we consume. It's where all of our friends are living online. So, one, they've just gotten to be bigger players that I think attract more criticism. And they're starting to have real effects on how we live and some of those things are very negative. I mean, honestly, sometimes I think they get outsized attention or blame for things that are happening in society. But they do play huge roles in our everyday life now and I think that yes, it's engendered some criticism.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, so the ubiquity, the size of the scope and the power and then also to me, I think, finding out what's underneath the hood is a big part of it. That you have the sense that I'm interacting with this thing and I'm writing the email and my understanding of my interaction with Gmail is like, they make a free software product, I use it, okay. I kick them five bucks a year, whatever, for some storage. That's not where the relationship ends. They're learning lots of things about me, everything about me. They're reading all of my words and they're using that to make money by essentially selling it. And I think to me, speaking for myself, the reality of that as a business model was much less clear to me, say three or four years ago than it is now.
KASHMIR HILL: Right, maybe people understand the price we're actually paying online now. What's more disturbing is that I think other players looked at these tech giants and said, "Wow, they're making so much money just off of people's data. We should start doing that too."
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
KASHMIR HILL: So you see things that we pay for, like our phone carriers. They're collecting data about our location and what we're looking at on our phones and they started packaging that up and they anonymize it and aggregate it and then they sell that. So even something you're paying $100 a year for, they're still packaging up your data and selling it. So that's been another kind of harmful effect of the spread of the tech giants business model.
CHRIS HAYES: And this gets to what your project is, right? So describe to me what your undertaking is and how you came up with the idea?
KASHMIR HILL: So when you're critical of these companies, when you say they're too powerful or they're too privacy invasive, people often will say, "Oh well, if you don't like Facebook, don't use its products. If you don't like Google, just get off Gmail." And so I wanted to explore that argument and find out if it's possible not to use the company if you don't like it. And so that was kind of what I was trying to tackle here. And I found out that it's not possible to avoid them with the exception of Apple. Even if you choose to boycott their products, you're still interacting with them really all the time that you're online and with Microsoft and the rest really but in the real world as well. So you can't totally avoid them.
The idea actually came to me because there's many people that are especially critical of Google. Google has a lot of enemies. And so somebody pitched me on the idea, they're like, "Google's so powerful, you should try to avoid them and write about how hard it is." And I was like, "Oh, that's actually a good idea but I want to do it with all the technology companies."
CHRIS HAYES: Turns out Amazon pitched you on that story. They're like, "You know who's really bad? You know who's really, really bad?" So you set out with the project, I mean, I want to just reiterate a thing you just said. You can't choose not to use some of these companies. That's what you're saying, that's what you've concluded.
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, some of these companies are just unavoidable. You have to use them because or you will encounter them because they're all around the website and you're gonna use services that are using their services.
CHRIS HAYES: To live in the modern world is to use Amazon for instance?
KASHMIR HILL: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: And Google.
KASHMIR HILL: Mm, yes.
CHRIS HAYES: So tell me what you did, so you've got Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, right?
KASHMIR HILL: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Those are the big five. Okay.
KASHMIR HILL: A lot of people are mad at me 'cause every time I would tweet one of these stories, they're like, well, what about Twitter? But I was trying to stick to kind of like, the really big five, the companies that people sometimes call the frightful five.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, don't you also think that Twitter, in some ways, doing the experiment with Twitter I think would prove out the point which is that you can cut Twitter out of your life.
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, you'll probably run into the tweet button around the web but, I think it would be pretty easy.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, you'll run into people-
KASHMIR HILL: Maybe healthy to cut out of my life.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, oh my god, would it be healthy. You run into people reading the president's tweets on the television. But from the tech standpoint. I mean, so you say, I'm gonna go through this sequence cutting these out, you start with Amazon, so my first thought was like, okay, not ordering anything from Amazon. Okay, yeah, sort of inconvenient but that's the tip of the iceberg, right? How did you go about doing this to make sure you were 100 percent cut off from Amazon?
KASHMIR HILL: Right. I didn't want to just boycott their products. In part, because journalists have done that before. They've stopped using Facebook. They stopped using Google and they write about how hard it is. But I wanted to really cut myself off from them. In part, to make it a more interesting stunt but also to really understand how often I was encountering them in invisible ways, which I knew was happening because I write about the technology industry.
So I worked with a technologist named Dhruv Mehrotra, and I wasn't sure exactly how to do this. I went to him and I said, "Hey, I want to cut the tech giants out of my life completely, I don't want to interact with them at all. How do I do it?" And he went and did some research and came back to me and said, "Oh hey, all the technology giants publish these list of all the IP addresses, the internet protocol addresses that they control. So I could build something for you that would just prevent your devices from being able to interact with those IP addresses. To send anything to them or receive anything from them. And that way I would just cut you off entirely from these companies servers."
So it means that Google's analytics on a page just wouldn't be able to load. Facebook's like button wouldn't appear there and any website that was hosted by one of these companies, which turned out most of the time to be AWS or Amazon Web Services. It just wouldn't load.
CHRIS HAYES: So this is the first thing I found shocking and hadn't even thought of is, the sheer amount of just web traffic and IP addresses controlled by these companies. It's enormous.
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, it's really big. I mean, what was fun about the stories … I love any story that dives into how the internet works. I think most of us just kind of think about it, is this like invisible vapor around us that you click on an app or type in a URL and then just information is there. So I always think it's fun to dive into all the ... I mean the internet's a strange place with all these standards bodies. So anyways, Dhruv did this research for me and said, Amazon and Microsoft control over 20 million IP addresses. Google had about nine million, which I was kind of surprised by, that it was a bit of a laggard there. Facebook had only about 122,000 or something, a very small amount of IP addresses. And Apple had a bunch, I think they were around 16 million.
And this is just like the number of IP addresses that they own, they're kind of squatting on them. And sometimes IP addresses, attach to a device on the internet. But it just gives them a way to roll out services and have a place for your internet traffic to go to get them.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah so, I guess, I'm sort of debating in my head how in the weeds of this to get because I will confess that I have no idea how the internet works. I mean, I really don't understand. It is basically magic and there's stuff floating around the air. There's how many bars I have on phone and then it's like [beeping noises] beams in. I know there are servers, I know there are networks. I know an IP address is a unique locator and that traffic goes in packets and hops from these sort of noted clusters from place to place and moves over these wires. But that's it. So when you say in the first one, you start to block all the Amazon IP addresses, my question is what are they? What does that mean? What can't you see?
KASHMIR HILL: So I think the easiest way to think about it is those IP addresses, think of them as directions. IP addresses are directions to Amazon's server.
CHRIS HAYES: Mm-hmm.
KASHMIR HILL: And so every time my devices wanted to direct themselves towards Amazon's servers, Dhruv's blocker said, "Nope, you can't go this way."
CHRIS HAYES: And that happened a lot.
KASHMIR HILL: It happened a lot, we did run into one little problem, and this is again how the internet works, Amazon AWS servers are huge servers that have all this data. And then sometimes a company wants its website to load faster. So they'll have a secondary service, called a content delivery network or CDN, and these are companies that have a whole bunch of little servers that are more prolific and so when you load a website, sometimes it'll get the information from that CDN, the little machines, who are storing it from the big machines from Amazon and it just means that you don't have to wait for the data packets to come all the way from the Amazon warehouse. You can get it from this smaller warehouse that's closer to your device. And so if we saw that CDN, we wouldn't realize it was coming from Amazon. So sometimes it messed up our blocker.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. So just to go back, so you set up a ... Your tech dude sets up a VPN, it says for week one, no Amazon IP addresses. One of the first things you learn is actually even that doesn't fully screen on Amazon because there's these sort of small retail outfits whose backends are actually Amazon but don't look like Amazon to the VPNs so they're getting through. So you gotta try to figure that out. What else are you starting to deal with in week one of no Amazon?
KASHMIR HILL: So just websites not working. And I'm a journalist and I was trying to do work this week and so I tried to go ... Every government website stopped working for me because they all use AWS.
CHRIS HAYES: Every government website?
KASHMIR HILL: Every government website that I tried to use. I didn't try all the government websites but I was doing some research that took me to a few of them. Journalism websites went down, I'm using this car rental service right now, called Drive Canvas and its website stopped working so I couldn't go see my bills. Some of my apps stopped working. I went for a run and I couldn't record the run on Runkeeper because it used AWS in some way.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
KASHMIR HILL: But the bigger problem was that it cut off of all digital entertainment for me. Because all video streaming sites use AWS, even Netflix, which is a big Amazon competitor.
CHRIS HAYES: Wait, whoa. You mentioned that in the piece but I thought I was misunderstanding, because I thought you were just ... It's so funny, I thought you were just like a real Amazon Prime home for some reason and just super loyal to Amazon Prime so you cut off Amazon Prime and was like, "Well, we can't watch anything." But what you're saying is, literally everything streams through the AWS backend, no matter what you're streaming it over.
KASHMIR HILL: Pretty much. I mean, in my experience, HBO Go was down. Netflix was down, Hulu was down. AWS-
CHRIS HAYES: That's crazy!
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, it's crazy and I think we could have listened to Spotify because Spotify is hosted by Google, except we listened to Spotify through our Amazon Echo, which I had to put away in a drawer. So yeah, we just had a very silent house. It's insane. Amazon recognized about a decade ago that web hosting was an important business, I think they're finding it with their own business, they developed this solution and then they released it to the world. And AWS is now the most profitable part of Amazon, not it's retail. Tons of people use them. They just have, I guess, a great service. Even their competitors are relying on them to host their movies and their data.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, the implications here are kinda crazy because Amazon's Prime Video is this big play they're making to compete with Netflix. You can imagine a world in which they're like, "Oh look at that, would you look at that, we had a little glitch and then Netflix streaming went out." I mean, they're clearly not doing that now. I think if they were, we would know about it. It's a little weird that that is possibility.
KASHMIR HILL: I know. What's hilarious is actually whenever we watch Amazon Prime Video, the streaming quality is terrible. I'm like, take lessons from Netflix.
CHRIS HAYES: It is ironic, actually. So you cut your entertainment. You cut a million websites. My big takeaway from the Amazon week for you was, you cut ordering stuff from them which was a little bit of a pain. There's a great story about how you order something on Ebay and it comes in an Amazon package?
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Why?
KASHMIR HILL: Well, Amazon is so dominant in the kind of storage and shipping industry, that they have something called Fulfillment by Amazon. A lot of people that use competitors still use Amazon for storage and shipping.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean-
KASHMIR HILL: So I ordered from Ebay but it came from Amazon in an Amazon package.
CHRIS HAYES: And there's a funny part, you eat some Whole Foods sushi, which you only realize after you put it in your mouth ... But it seemed to me that when you divide up that Amazon week, the ordering stuff and the Whole Foods and stuff is that you live withoutable, it's the architecture of the backend of the internet that is not.
KASHMIR HILL: Right, which I kind of knew. I knew AWS was big. I didn't realize how big it was and I found that a lot of people reading the story didn't know about Amazon Web Services. Because it's invisible to you as your navigating the web. I've had a lot of people I talk to during the series, compare it to the environmental movement or the food movement. The slow food movement and being digital vegans, who are really careful about where their data comes from. But I think most people are just using the internet aren't thinking about where the data is coming from. I don't know, maybe that'll change but it was really interesting for me to be able see this because I type in a website and it just won't load.
CHRIS HAYES: So what was the next hardest one to cut out?
KASHMIR HILL: I think the next hardest was probably Google. I mean Google does do cloud hosting as well. Though they're not nearly as popular as AWS. But it was more that Google was really unlike all the sites that I went to and in a lot of apps. It's just that Google provides services that are used across the web. For example, I ran into on tons of sites something called Google Fonts and I could see that the website was trying desperately to load Google Fonts. And I’m like, "What the hell is Google Fonts? I've never heard of this before." It's a repository that they released around the time that they released Google Chrome that will automatically populate your browser with a whole bunch of font options. So that a website doesn't have to get the font from your computer and figure out a different font if your computer doesn't have it stored. So lots of sites use it.
CHRIS HAYES: Turns out the entire internet is in comic sans without Google Fonts, like every page you load.
KASHMIR HILL: Man, that would be great for getting people to use the internet less.
CHRIS HAYES: So Google Fonts, which you as a tech reporter didn't know the product existed.
KASHMIR HILL: I didn't. I didn't. Google says that they don't use it to track anybody, they have it in a kind of an FAQ somewhere. But still it means that, I mean, any site that has Google Fonts, you're interacting with Google's server and there's some information about you that's kind of being sent to them. Could be really basic and it doesn't sound like they use it. But I was just surprised to have it there on top of tons of other stuff, like Google Ads, Google Analytics. Just random Google trackers and then Google Maps are everywhere.
CHRIS HAYES: That was the striking thing to me was that Google Maps really are the backbone of geolocation. Is that a fair statement?
KASHMIR HILL: Yes. Absolutely, I tried to pull up stats on this and they didn't seem to exist in the same way that stats exist for other categories. But I basically looked at websites that look at the elements in various maps and apps. And it was something like, 80 percent or more of maps are powered by Google or by the Google Maps API, which is just quite a monopoly on the market. And the way that this manifested for me is that one morning I needed to get to a meeting and I was planning on Uber-ing there or Lyft-ing there but neither app would work for me and I'm like, "What is going on?" I just couldn't enter the destination. And it turned out that they were non-operational without being able to access Google Maps. I just couldn't even enter a destination.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, you opt out of Google, you basically opt out of GPS functionally which is what I learned from your reporting, which I did not know. Again-
KASHMIR HILL: I wouldn't say you opt out of GPS, my iPhone still knows where I-
CHRIS HAYES: Your iPhone does, okay.
KASHMIR HILL: Where I am.
CHRIS HAYES: But individual apps or other things that are using the API, what is an API?
KASHMIR HILL: It's like an automated way for computers to interact with database and pool information out of it.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
KASHMIR HILL: I was really surprised because I don't know if your listeners would know but Yelp is a very big critic and enemy of Google. Because they've been so mad about the way that Google prioritizes its own listings above Yelp’s.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
KASHMIR HILL: They've been in kind of like in an anti-trust battle for a long time but when I went to Yelp.com to find a restaurant to go to for lunch one day, it's map wouldn't load because it was using Google Maps.
CHRIS HAYES: From the sort of internet infrastructural standpoint, Google and Amazon are near the top. I thought Microsoft was interesting in its inclusion because I think of Microsoft, I associate Microsoft with my childhood. I think of Microsoft in the same category as Sega Genesis. It really was of the moment at a certain point in my life. And then I stopped thinking about Microsoft as big tech player. I stopped thinking of Microsoft is being totally dominant, which in my youth they were. There was a big anti-trust case against them. Bill Gates was famously the richest man in the world. Yada, yada, yada. But Microsoft is still an enormous player.
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, we think, oh Microsoft's not cool anymore. But it's huge, I mean, it's constantly in competition for most valuable public company in the world. Of course, they make the X-Box, which is I think kinda cool. They make the workhorses of social media or they own them. GitHub, LinkedIn and Skype, which Skype I use quite a lot. They do that stuff that we traditionally associate with them, which is Windows Servers and Windows Office and Outlook. Those things are definitely still around and making the company a lot of money. I thought it would be really easy to get off Microsoft products and it was as a consumer but I just kind of started to notice when I was out and about, every time I went to a coffee shop, I was like, oh, this could very well be their point of sale system is probably run on a Microsoft server.
And I was on BART, which is the subway in San Francisco and I was like, "This is probably run on Microsoft." And I got into my car one day and I looked down, and it's a Ford Fusion 2015 and on the center console, which I never noticed before, was Sync, powered by Microsoft. So Microsoft was powering this entertainment navigation system in my car. Even though we don't think of ... They're not a super consumer-happy brand where we're thinking about, "oh, we're using Microsoft all the time" but they are still embedded in the infrastructure of our cities and in lots of governments, probably because their technology is kind of dated, are definitely still reliant on Microsoft.
CHRIS HAYES: We work off of Microsoft workstations every day at the office. It would be a blissful release if I didn't have to do that. Really don't like my Windows machine. Sorry, tech, if you're listening, sorry. So Apple was the easiest, you say?
KASHMIR HILL: So Apple was emotionally difficult for me because-
CHRIS HAYES: Your phone.
KASHMIR HILL: My phone, my laptop, my work laptop. I mean, Apple is kind of like my portal to all things digital. I became an Apple user maybe six years ago and once you become an Apple user, you're just kind of trapped in their ecosystem, all their ... I won't use a curse word here but their ports just the constantly changed ports. Oh, sorry, we're not gonna have a headphone jack anymore. I'm like, come on Apple, what is the matter with you.
CHRIS HAYES: It is a dysfunctional relationship in my life where I got into this relationship with Apple. I liked their computers way more than I liked Windows. One of the reasons I got into it because iTunes and the early iPhone, which I had, you could sync music much more easily. And then as the years have gone by, it's become less and less usable. The products have gotten less and less usable. I mean, I do not have the IQ to work iTunes. I just don't get it. I don't understand it anymore. It makes me feel like a complete out of it old man because I don't understand the interface of iTunes.
And I generally feel frustrated with Apple products a fair amount but there's no getting out. I can't get out. I got the ports and I've the account and everything's synced up in this one way and then I'm just stuck there. And they know that. And they know that so they don't work to make it any better.
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, we were Marie Kondo-ing our house and we just have 1,000 different Apple cords. I'm like, "Do we even have a computer to go with this particular cord at this point?" And it's also that Apple — I'm gonna generalize a little bit — but they make privacy and security easier. And so that keeps me there. And it's something I pay more for their products just for that kind of easy privacy security that's just kind of built in to it. It was just hard to get used to non-Apple products 'cause I hadn't used them in so long. But once I did get used to them, it wasn't that hard being away from Apple and I didn't encounter them anymore. If you don't use an Apple product, Apple doesn't track you, they're not trying to collect data about you.
CHRIS HAYES: Kara Swisher and I did an interview with Tim Cook and it got a lot of news because he was pretty critical of Mark Zuckerberg who we'll talk about in a second and Facebook. But he made that point. Look, we made a decision that we sell you products, we engineer products, we sell you those products, we want you to purchase those products. That's how we make our money and we don't sell your data. That's not the business that we're in and we want you to have privacy and security and by in large relative to the other companies, that's true. But the other thing that I found insidious was your discovery in that week, which is because of that, even though it was emotionally hard to give up, they were the easiest one to avoid because they have made that decision.
KASHMIR HILL: Right, Apple, because they've made that decision and Apple's basically not trying to sell products to non-Apple users. Which is part of the wall guard and it's part of what's kind of frustrating about them. Yeah, they're just not trying to reach across the divide. So yeah, they're not trying collect your data. I mean they did for awhile have iAds, which doesn't fit easily into Cook's narrative but they abandoned that, I think because it wasn't doing that well. Yes, it allowed them to just go the way of, we just sell you hardware-
CHRIS HAYES: It's really interesting.
KASHMIR HILL: The kind of privacy promises are, they seem reliable.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, to me it's the ultimate illustration of the perverse incentives. Because if you make those ... I mean, I guess it's not because Apple's one the most profitable companies in the world. So it's not like they're suffering. But right, they've made a bet that we're gonna make superior products and people will pay for that. But the idea that they're ubiquity is less because they've made that choice, is a little unnerving because it makes me think that the incentives are for ubiquity and selling people's data and using their data and running things behind the scenes. And if those are the incentives, that's what we're gonna get more of.
KASHMIR HILL: Well, I guess there's that lesson. I think the other lesson is, whether privacy becomes a luxury good. And Apple products are expensive products and part of what you're paying for is that this is a company that's not gonna be trying to monetize you or kind of track you in creepy ways. One of the kind of bigger takeaways from this project was if don't want to live in this surveillance economy, maybe we'll have to pay for things online. But that means that privacy will only be afforded to people who are wealthy. And people who can't afford it like, the poor, the most vulnerable people in society will continue to be exploited. So that's problematic to me. That's capitalism at work and that's where you think, oh maybe government needs to get involved and regulate this whole thing.
CHRIS HAYES: That brings us to Facebook, which in some ways, I think, Facebook is most controversial right now. Has had the most negative press. I just think they handle all of it terribly. I can't tell, what do you think? Is it that what they're doing is indefensible or they've handled it terribly, I don't think I can figure it out.
KASHMIR HILL: Which thing? I mean.
CHRIS HAYES: Fundamentally the way that they are using your data and not regulating their platform, basically.
KASHMIR HILL: So one thing I think is weird about Facebook is I just don't think that people who created Facebook ever dreamed of what Facebook would become. And I think all along the way, they have just been kind of haphazardly building this thing. Never realizing that one day they would have over a billion people using it and that they would become the data intermediary for a good portion of the world. And so, I always just feel like they're kind of just doing things haphazardly and not thinking about the consequences. And that the people who run it, just have no idea what the world is like for people who don't look like them.
CHRIS HAYES: That seems like a totally accurate diagnosis but it also seems like the one they in a weird way are pushing. Because it's more exculpatory than the more nefarious one. Which is like, "Oh shucks, oh darn. We just didn't understand this whole Rohingya thing and woo, I guess we aided a genocide. We've got a whole team now working on it." It's like, that's not good enough.
KASHMIR HILL: No.
CHRIS HAYES: That's my feeling. It's not good enough. You have the power and if you can't wield the power. The power has to be taken away from you. Because there is concrete evidence your platform is being used literally in the commission of genocide. Which is the worst thing that human beings do to each other and you're implicated in it.
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, I don't think that they were able to foresee that in any way. I don't think they really know how to fix it.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. What did you learn when you tried to block them?
KASHMIR HILL: And yeah, I've long been critical of Facebook.
CHRIS HAYES: I'm the one ranting about blood on their hands. So just to be-
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, I just always think about, basically for the last two years or more, I've been obsessed with Facebook's "People You May Know" and how they figure out who we know in real life. Just because it's so creepy to people. And one of the things I figured out they are doing is every time you upload your contacts to Facebook, you're basically like outing anybody who's in there and Facebook takes that information and it layers it on other people's accounts. So maybe I've only given Facebook my phone number but if you give them my phone number and two email addresses for me, that all gets kind of layered into my account and by having this vast black book of the whole world they can figure out who knows who.
And this resulted in sex workers having their identities outed to their clients. I discovered that was happening before I understood the contact thing and Facebook just wouldn't really engage with me and tell me how is it that sex workers and their clients are being connected through your platform. Sex workers use burner phones, burner email addresses. They have a fake name, their clients are doing the same thing and yet you're somehow still making these connections. And Facebook was kind of like, "Oh, we don't really know how that would happen." They wouldn't be transparent about all that goes into "People You May Know" that would help people protect themselves against this.
And that's what really bothers me so much about Facebook is that, one, I don't think they sympathize with the sex worker at all. And two, they don't want to be really candid with us about how their platform works. And so it makes it hard for us to protect ourselves against Facebook.
CHRIS HAYES: No, that's exactly the thing that I find maddening about it. I'm not trying to single out Facebook as the most nefarious American company. I think the oil industry takes that crown. But I find them very gaslightly, I guess is what I would say over the last few years in the wake of this negative press, which is very much like, "Oh yeah, no, don't worry, it's the secret sauce. No, we're not doing that, okay maybe. Well, yeah, there was actually a lot of that." Which feels like the revelation arc in everything and I just find it a little maddening.
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, I get very frustrated by this company. I will say, so going off Facebook, they actually didn't track me that much once I wasn't using Facebook products. All this to say, all this bad stuff about Facebook, when it came down to it ... So we built this VPN that I was using to block myself off from the giants. At the same time we are blocking, we are tracking how often my devices were trying to interact with that giant and so the week I was blocking Facebook, it was much less. Google tried to interact with my devices over 100,000 times when it was blocked. And Amazon nearly 300,000 times.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
KASHMIR HILL: But with Facebook it was just 15,000 times, which is not that much. That might have just been me opening the Instagram account a few times by accident. So they do have trackers all over the web, they have Facebook Pixel, and the Facebook Like button. Pixel, I think is the one that causes a lot of anxiety for people because they'll be on their work computer and they'll be looking at some shoes and then later they'll be on their phones, scrolling through Instagram and they see an ad for those shoes and they're like, "How does it know? Must be listening to my conversations."
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, by the way, people are convinced that they're listening, are they?
KASHMIR HILL: No. I mean, I don't think so. We just talked about how you asked Facebook what it's doing and it won't tell the truth so who knows.
CHRIS HAYES: That is exactly the reality vortex I'm describing because I've had multiple people be like, "Oh dude, they're listening to your phone, dude. What are you a child? How naïve are you?" I'm like, "I don't think they are and if they are, that hasn't been established or reported." But what the hell do I know?
KASHMIR HILL: I'm 88 percent certain that they're not listening or no one's listening. I did work with some researchers who tried to study this. They set up a whole bunch of phones with apps that were running all the time and they're just trying to measure whether the microphone ever got secretly activated by any of these phones or any of these apps. And they discovered other creepy things of course. But they didn't see any evidence that there's secret microphone activation happening. Though I'm always impressed or I'm always horrified 'cause people are so convinced that their phones are listening. And yet, they have it on their bedside table at night while they're having sex and take it into the bathroom. And I'm like, if you think your phone's spying on you, maybe you should put it away.
CHRIS HAYES: I just got to rack up those likes on my tweet. I gotta see what I tweeted. I got to see if everyone's liking my tweet. I mean, that's part of it. I mean, so to me there's two aspects to this sort of grand takeaways. I mean, my big takeaway is, I don't know if I believe what I'm about to say but it's a possibility, Amazon is a utility that should be nationalized? Maybe Google is too, it should not be the case that a private company has that much power or is that intimately woven into the infrastructure of contemporary life?
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, I mean, in the real world, the government built our roads and to a certain extent like powers our transportation system and our airports. And oversees the energy industry as extremely regulated. The digital world is huge now. We spend, it's sad but I think we spend almost as much time in the digital world as in the real world. Increasingly the borders between the two are gone. And the digital world, the internet has been built mostly by these private companies and they control the roads. They built the roads. They control the transportation systems.
I think when you start looking at it that way and you realize the degree to which they built and controlled in infrastructure of our online environments and our digital environments, I find the argument that they're utilities and should regulated like utilities pretty powerful.
CHRIS HAYES: But that was not my takeaway of, weirdly enough, of your reporting on Facebook and Apple, which are both incredibly present in one's life and in some ways, the thing we're talking about on the consumer end, is our addiction to them. And one of the revelatory things about your reporting is that there's the front facing consumer side and then there's the backend side, which you don't know anything about. And in many cases, it's way more ubiquitous and more difficult to get rid of and those are kind of different aspects of the problem. Is that fair to say?
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, in terms of where I landed with this experiment and what I've been thinking about is a lot of critics are asking the question right now, the degree to which these companies are monopolies. And I really felt that with some of the blocks. When I was blocking Facebook products, because Facebook owns Facebook and Instagram, they own the spaces where my community is, where all my friend are. And so I lost the ability during those weeks to communicate with my friends and share news with them and get news from them.
One of my friends had a baby. And I didn't find out, she's one of my closest friends and I didn't find out until days later when I turned my Facebook account back on. I called her about it and she was like, "Well, I just assumed if I put something on Facebook, everybody will see it." But there's this question whether they're monopolies and where the anti-trust scrutiny is in today's world and I think these companies combined have bought over 400 companies and start-ups in the last decade. Regulators in the U.S. haven't pushed back at all. It's been different in Europe. Europe has been more critical, they had this big fine against Google because of the way that it bought Android, the Android operating system, which 80% of the smartphone market uses.
And then said, "Hey, you need to bundle our apps up and put them on the phones by default." And Europe said, "Hey, that's troubling from an anti-trust standpoint." So there's the regulation question. And on the other side, there's just the technologist solution. The question of why isn't there more interoperability between these platforms. When you get a phone number with a certain phone carrier, you're not locked into that phone carrier for the rest of your life. And you can call people who have numbers with different phone carriers.
CHRIS HAYES: Thank god.
KASHMIR HILL: It's amazing, right?
CHRIS HAYES: What a miracle.
KASHMIR HILL: What if AT&T and Verizon, if they just been able to lock us into their system.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, sorry.
KASHMIR HILL: You can only call other people who had Verizon. So technologists are kinda like, "Why isn't there more technology platforms that are interoperable?" I don't want to be on Facebook, I'm okay to be on Pinterest. Can I be invited to a Facebook event? Technologists are saying, "Let's just go back to open source and make it decentralized and make everything interoperable." And then, the policy people are like, "We need to regulate. We need to treat these companies as monopolies and we need to ensure that we're creating a marketplace with viable competition." And so, I kind of see that there's these two different paths with critics that maybe will just continue to be ignored but who knows.
CHRIS HAYES: My takeaway was, in some ways they don't act anywhere near as terribly as they could. That's what I kept thinking. The idea that Amazon has in its power, it probably would be against the law, I think it would probably be a very clear tripwire for an anti-trust case, if they started messing with Netflix's streaming because they want to advantage Amazon video. But there seems to be less of that, than I would have anticipated. Partly it seems a little bit of a "Clash of the Titans" kind of thing. There's all these big companies, they're all more powerful than us.
But they're also in fighting each other in ways that do restrain their behavior in certain ways that as I read through your piece, I kept thinking, "Wow, Google could screw over Yelp by turning off their maps? If they really got into it." They're not acting as predatorily as they could, I guess is my point.
KASHMIR HILL: Right, they could take more advantage of the power and data they have. I mean, we saw this happen very recently with Apple. I mean, Apple got mad-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, exactly.
KASHMIR HILL: That Google and Facebook had used their kind of special all seeing powers. This corporate enterprise certificate. That you’re only supposed to use with your employees with an app that you're distributing internally. They used this power for apps that they were using to spy on research participants, including teens. And so TechCrunch reported this and people got really upset. And Apple didn't like that they'd done this and so just overnight they pulled this enterprise certificate. Facebook and Google apparently was complete chaos because their internal apps didn't work anymore. So they didn't know what was for lunch in cafeteria and they couldn't book a spot on the Google and Facebook buses. And you saw how powerful it is. It was like, oh, that's a reminder, Apple controls the rails of how these things work and they can just say-
CHRIS HAYES: Nope.
KASHMIR HILL: That's not working anymore. When it happens in that way, it's really visible. I mean, I can't say with certainty that they haven't abused the powers that they have. The one thing I noticed in ... Lina Khan did this kind of blockbuster academic paper, blockbuster by academic standards about how Amazon's already a monopoly. And one of the things she mentioned in it, is that, AWS is probably collecting valuable metadata, and it could be ... Amazon is always entering new industries and it's gathering data that could be helpful to it in entering new industries. And one example of them, actually using that data was that they've invested in three start-ups, that they saw because they were hosting them on AWS that they were doing tons of traffic.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
KASHMIR HILL: So they basically saw that they were having gangbusters growth and they said, "Oh, we should invest in these start-ups."
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
KASHMIR HILL: So they have used the metadata from AWS in the past and that became reported, they could have just hidden that and said, we just decided to invest in these companies. I don't know how else they're using that data and I asked Amazon about it. And they just didn't respond.
CHRIS HAYES: I should tell people that the series is up at Gizmodo, and you have articles and then you have videos that are on YouTube, of course, owned by-
KASHMIR HILL: They're on our site, they're on YouTube, they're on Facebook. They're on all these platforms that I'm criticizing.
CHRIS HAYES: Sit there and download some Amazon Prime Video of Kashmir Hill. There's an interesting human part of those videos, your child only likes three movies, which she can't watch during the week that you're not using Amazon because you can't stream video. Was there some kind of, for lack of a better word, spiritual lesson you learned about you as human being and your psyche and soul in relationship to technology?
KASHMIR HILL: Yeah, I mean so by blocking the tech giants, as we've talked about, they kind of control the infrastructure of so much of the web and so many other devices. So by blocking the tech giants, I blocked technology writ large from my life in many ways. And it was wonderful. It was the digital equivalent of going on a juice cleanse. Where, I just reevaluated the role of technology in my life. I deleted stupid time wasting apps on my phone.
I turn off my phone at night, like at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., I just turn it off, which I used to never do. My phone would be on until the battery died. And that would be a very traumatic event. So now I turn off my phone at night. It's not the first thing I reach for in the morning. Whereas before I touch my husband, before I talked to my daughter, I would I just pick the phone up as soon as I woke up and start scrolling through it. I realized I actually hate that. I don't want to start my day every day mainlining the internet through this technology that has been forced upon me by the tech giants in the world that they're creating.
I don't want to look at screens as much and I don't think we have to adopt all the technology that's being pushed at us by these tech giants and other companies. I think we really need to actively resist it because it's easy. I mean, it's so easy just to stare at screen and not be where you are, not be with the people that are around you. I guess that was my big realization. On the personal level, during the last day of my block, we were flying to New York. It's a five hour flight from California and we usually, we fly a lot with my daughter. And we usually just have an iPad and set her up in front of it. In the lead up to this, my husband was like, "Okay, you have to end your block early. We need the iPad."
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, what's the policy there? She's not writing an article for Gizmodo. We gotta sit on a flight here.
KASHMIR HILL: He's like, "It's not you using the iPad, it's me using the iPad." And I was like, "No, no, we have to do this, I want to stay strong." He's like, "I'm moving, I'm gonna sit somewhere else on the plane." I held strong. We read books, we played with these little Wizzle sticks that sticky sticks for an hour that came with her Alaska Airlines meal. She slept for the last hour and a half, which she usually doesn't do when she has an iPad to stimulate her. And we landed and we get in the taxi and my husband turns to me and he says, "That was the easiest flight we've ever had."
CHRIS HAYES: Wow. I’m a convert. I just threw my iPhone in the garbage here. It's done. I just tossed it.
KASHMIR HILL: Just turn it off every once in awhile. Just turn it off.
CHRIS HAYES: Why are you in my life! No. Kashmir Hill is an investigative reporter at Gizmodo. She just did this amazing series we were discussing about blocking the tech giants. It's such a smart conceit and it's so well conceived and I really thank you for making the time to talk.
KASHMIR HILL: Thank you for popularizing it on your show, I appreciate it.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, great thanks to Kashmir Hill, investigative reporter at Gizmodo. You can check out all of the reporting, both the articles and the videos they made about this enterprise she undertook, which we link to in the episode description as well as in our transcripts, which are up at nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening. We've gotten amazing response from all of you to our ticket giveaway to come see the second ever live WITH Pod with Stacey Abrams, Feb. 24 in New York. The names have been drawn and we have notified the winner in your inbox so we replied directly to your submission emails. So check your inboxes. If you are one of the lucky winners, I'm extremely excited for you, if you are not, I'm very disappointed on your behalf.
But there will be other opportunities in the future, I promise, and we are so gratified and stoked that people are as excited about this event as we are and we are also, I think, probably going to eye larger venues in the future. So that we don't have quite the scarcity issue that we ended up having with this. As always we love to hear from you, tweet us #WITHpod or email email@example.com. We look at all those, we get lots of new ideas in guests we should have. We got a bunch of really cool stuff coming up that we're really excited about.
Amazon's Wish List with Stacy Mitchell (Jan. 22)
Life without the tech giants, by Kashmir Hill
"Amazon's Anti-trust Paradox" by Lina M. Khan
"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.
This article was first published on NBC News' Think.