The Quiet Invasion of 'Big Information'
Privacy violations are impacting people's everyday lives
When people worry about their data privacy, they usually focus on the Big Five tech companies: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. Legislators have brought Facebook’s CEO to the capitol to testify about the ways the company uses personal data. The FTC has sued Google for violating laws meant to protect children’s privacy. Each of the tech companies is followed by a bevy of reporters eager to investigate how it uses technology to surveil us. But when Congress got close to passing data privacy legislation, it wasn’t the Big Five that led the most urgent effort to prevent the law from passing, it was a company called RELX.
You might not be familiar with RELX, but it knows all about you. Reed Elsevier LexisNexis (RELX) is a Frankensteinian amalgam of publishers and data brokers, stitched together into a single information giant. There is one other company that compares to RELX—Thomson Reuters, which is also an amalgamation of hundreds of smaller publishers and data services. Together, the two companies have amassed thousands of academic publications and business profiles, millions of data dossiers containing our personal information, and the entire corpus of U.S. law. These companies are a culmination of the kind of information market consolidation that’s happening across media industries, from music and newspapers to book publishing. However, RELX and Thomson Reuters are uniquely creepy as media companies that don’t just publish content but also sell our personal data.
Despite being a billion-dollar data and information business—just one of RELX’s brands, alone, has profit margins that rival Apple, Google and Amazon’s—RELX doesn’t get the same level of public scrutiny that those other companies do. It’s likely easier for most of us to ignore RELX and its industry counterparts than it is to ignore the social media and online shopping platforms that we use every day. We visit the Big Five companies’ platforms whenever we want to read the news, catch up with friends, shop or look something up. Most of us don’t have such an intimate user relationship with RELX, even if we do legal research on Lexis, read Elsevier journals, or use LexisNexis personal data services at work. Even if you don’t feel like you have close, personal ties to RELX, one of the company’s dossiers probably has your name on it—and that information may be used to make decisions about your everyday life.
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