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Big technology companies are influencing a variety of domains in our society. Where exactly, is made clear on the new website ‘Sphere Transgression Watch, which was launched this week.

Tech giants such as Apple and Microsoft are becoming more and more prominently engaged in developments affecting society. For example, in the fields of healthcare, education, culture or politics. Although Microsoft is originally a software company, it is also participating in all sorts of healthcare-related initiatives.

Insight into initiatives

The Sphere Transgression Watch offers insight into the amount and diversity of these kinds of initiatives. The website was built by Digital Good, part of iHub. Digital Good is dedicated to answering the question of how to deal with the increasing influence of large technology companies in other domains. The team is led by Tamar Sharon, Professor of Philosophy, Digitalization and Society at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Tamar Sharon
Professor Tamar Sharon

No adequate regulation in place

The tech companies are bringing innovation and renewal to healthcare, amongst other domains. But this creates all kinds of new interdependencies that we are often completely unaware of and for which adequate regulation is lacking. Sharon: “These technology companies now have influence far beyond their own domain. In this project, we are investigating the ethical and social challenges inherent to this influence. Particularly in the areas of health and biomedical research.”

Unfair advantages 

According to the Digital Good team, large tech companies are now using their knowledge to gain unfair advantages and influence within domains that are in the process of digitalizing, such as healthcare and education. The tool lets you see how far the influence of these companies extends. It provides both a visual representation and a database functionality of the cross-domain activities of these companies.

Clash of values?

Sharon: “How is the presence of these companies affecting these domains? In what ways do the values and knowledge that they bring clash with the values and expertise of the domain itself? What influence might the companies have on research agendas? And what interdependencies are being created when these companies start offering public services? – Mapping this out is one step, but ultimately we want to move towards a normative framework, as in, to what extent should we actually allow this influence, and under what conditions?”

Input sought

The Sphere Transgression Watch is an open source digital tool, however its data is not yet complete. The Digital Good team is continuing to work on the website, but is also inviting other researchers to contribute to it. This can be done by adding information about the activities of large companies. In addition, journalists, policymakers, civil society organizations and members of the public can use the tool to discover how far the influence of big tech reaches. Please email [email protected] if you would also like to make your own contribution to the tool.


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