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The ascent to power of surveillance capitalists

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Photo: Reuters

  • Over the past two decades, leading tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have taken advantage of deregulation and legal loopholes to build global businesses and amass wealth
  • Open societies cannot permit corporations to behave this way. We must demand that our governments bring them to heel while they still have the power

Although we have only just begun to understand the harm internet platforms cause to public health, privacy, and competition, we will soon confront a more fundamental threat from Big Tech. At a time when the institutions of liberal democracy are already weak, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are mounting a challenge to democratically elected governments by offering their own services as an alternative.

This represents a significant change from the past. As recently as 20 years ago, America’s technology companies had little interaction with the federal government beyond paying taxes. Engineers created products that empowered customers and the government cheered them on.

However, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the country’s attitude toward surveillance changed. The US intelligence community collaborated with leading digital platforms, starting with Google, to gather massive stores of personal data that might be used to prevent future attacks.

Moreover, beginning in 2008, Google, Facebook, and others became indispensable tools for politicians. The tech industry’s cozy relationship with President Barack Obama’s administration protected it from scrutiny while it perfected what Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School calls “surveillance capitalism".

Whereas industrial capitalism deploys technology to manipulate the environment, surveillance capitalism manipulates human behaviour. Its practitioners convert human experience into data, create digital voodoo dolls (dossiers) representing each individual, and then use those virtual representations to fashion and sell behavioural-prediction products.

These products have transformed marketing and advertising, by supplementing demographic targeting with specific predictions for every potential customer. The leading surveillance capitalists, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, also use the data to manipulate individual search results, limiting the choices available to consumers and increasing the likelihood that they will behave as predicted. As Zuboff argues, surveillance capitalism threatens both individual autonomy and the viability of open societies.

Moving Fast…

The first evidence that internet platforms could have a real-world impact on entire countries and not just individuals came in 2016, when online disinformation campaigns featured prominently in the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US presidential election.

Since then, internet platforms have enabled election interference in many other countries and unwittingly played a role in genocide in Myanmar, terrorism in New Zealand, mass murders in the US and Europe, and measles outbreaks in countries where the disease had previously been eliminated. They are regularly used to spread disinformation, foment violent extremism, and polarize electorates.

I do not believe that internet platforms intended to enable these harms. However, their business models, algorithms, and internal cultures made such harms inevitable. As citizens, we all need to acknowledge that internet platforms now have as much or more of an impact on our lives than our governments do. When Facebook prohibits images of breastfeeding, its users cannot appeal the decision, even if they live in a country with constitutional protections for speech. When it changes its policies to permit false advertising in political campaigns, it is essentially inviting further attacks on our elections and thus on democracy itself.

Worse, open societies have yet to get a hold on the first wave of harm unleashed by the internet platforms. The most thoughtful initiatives to date, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and California’s Consumer Privacy Act, address only a subset of the problem. Policymakers are still in the early stages of understanding how surveillance capitalism works. There is not even a consensus that this new economic model poses a threat, much less a plan to neutralize its harmful effects.

Meanwhile, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft have already moved on to the next stage. Having perfected surveillance capitalism, they are in a position to launch initiatives designed to displace services traditionally provided by government. They are not the first companies to do this, but their ambitions and the means at their disposal far exceed those of other corporate privateers, such as the for-profit prison industry.

Each leading platform company is driven by a clear goal. Some are explicit, as with Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information" and Facebook’s desire to bring the world together on a single network. Others can be inferred from behaviour. Amazon clearly wants to be the backbone of the economy and Microsoft the technology partner for businesses and governments. In each case, the unstated objective is control. Not satisfied with the benefits of surveillance capitalism, which today are constrained by the size of the market for advertising, the platform firms are moving aggressively, and defiantly in some cases, into new markets.

… and Breaking Things

For example, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, offers to take over local government services in exchange for control of public data and decision-making power. Whether by design or by accident, this business model could gradually displace personal choice and replace local-level democracy with algorithms.

Likewise, with the planned launch of its cryptocurrency Libra, Facebook is trying to compete with reserve currencies like the US dollar and the euro. Though Libra initially had the support of many leading financial-services firms, its unveiling has triggered a global backlash and many of those partners have dropped out.

However, regardless of what happens with Libra, Facebook will continue to play an outsize role in undermining democracy. Its open willingness to facilitate the dissemination of known falsehoods, along with its chief executive officer’s criticism of a leading Democratic presidential candidate (Elizabeth Warren), suggests that the company is not afraid to put its own interests before those of the country.

For its part, Amazon has moved aggressively into government contracting, providing a wide range of information services to federal and local agencies. It has offered facial-recognition products to law-enforcement agencies such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), though the software suffers from implicit bias against people of colour.

Amazon is also using its Ring line of smart doorbells to broker cooperation agreements with local police departments. When homeowners provide prior approval, law-enforcement officials can access Ring video feeds without a warrant. Civil liberties advocates and experts are understandably concerned that when combined with facial-recognition technology, Ring doorbell networks will allow for new, potentially unconstitutional forms of surveillance. Journalists have also discovered that Amazon’s Ring deals give the company undue leverage over how law-enforcement agencies communicate with the public. Finally, Microsoft’s new initiatives are less brazen, but not necessarily less problematic. Its work on artificial intelligence includes applications that would automate policing. As with facial recognition, early artificial intelligence-based policing apps have been plagued by implicit bias. Whether or not this is a result of poor engineering or customer preferences, no one has found a solution to the problem. Algorithmic bias has been found across a broad range of applications, such as in software that reviews resumes and mortgage applications.

Time Is Running Out

Over the past two decades, the leading internet platforms have taken advantage of deregulation and legal loopholes to build globe-spanning businesses and amass enormous wealth. Success has bred arrogance, particularly at Facebook and Google, both of which have defied policymakers in contexts where other corporations have not.

Both companies initially refused to send their CEOs to the first congressional hearings on election interference. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has avoided testifying before parliamentary committees in Canada and the UK, two of Facebook’s largest markets. When Facebook and Google executives have appeared before oversight bodies, they have often been cagey and evasive.

These companies now dominate our lives, often in ways that we do not even realize. They are unelected and unaccountable and are replacing self-determination and democratic decision-making with algorithmic processes. Open societies cannot permit corporations to behave this way. As citizens, we must demand that our governments bring them to heel while they still have the power to do so.

Roger Mcnamee is the co-founder of Elevation Partners and an early investor in Facebook, Google and Amazon.


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