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Will.i.am on the problem with Facebook and Google: 'There is no alternative'

Max Zahn

Critics of big tech companies have it all wrong when they just blame the companies, said will.i.am, hip-hop musician and founder of an artificial intelligence startup.

The behemoth companies aren’t the only issue when it comes to privacy—it’s that there’s nowhere else to turn, he said.

“The problem that we have in society is not the Facebooks of the world and the Googles of the world,” he said. “It’s that there is no alternative. There is no other system for me to use where I could retain my data in a way that’s simple for me to understand what’s going on.”

Best known for his role in the group The Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am made the comments in an interview with Yahoo Finance’s editor in chief, Andy Serwer, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Tuesday.

‘The business model is what’s scary’

The musician, whose startup i.am+ is developing a voice assisted operating system, later made a more pointed criticism, saying widespread privacy concerns over artificial intelligence stem directly from how the big tech companies have been run.

“The business models of these companies today are what bring up the concerns,” he said. “The business model is what’s scary.”

Will.i.am outlined his views in The Economist on Monday, calling personal data “a human right, just as access to water is a human right.” He argued that personal data should be treated as property that people are compensated for.

The comments come amid heightened scrutiny of the data practices at large tech firms, most recently from a French privacy watchdog, which slapped a $57 million fine on Google on Monday for violating Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Last December, bombshell report in The New York Times revealed Facebook’s data-sharing arrangements with over 150 companies. The incident was the latest in a series of controversies involving the company’s data-sharing policies, going back to last March when it came to light that voter-profiling firm Cambridge Analytica had gained access to private data on more than 50 million Facebook users.

Each scandal prompted a flurry of user account deletions, or at least social media posts about them, though Facebook boasts that more than 2 billion people use at least one of its “family” of services every day — including Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram.

Will.i.am may have an ally in the U.S. Senate. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, has suggested using data transparency as a way to increase competition in tech.

“These three companies [Facebook, Google, and Twitter] have so dominated the market, it’s really hard for new companies to come in,” he said last November. “And that would be data transparency. So shouldn’t we have a right to know how many actual pieces of information these companies have on us?”

Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance.

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