Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Welcome to the age of Surveillance Capitalism (you are already in it – like it or not)

Published 18 Jun, 2019 10:11am
How Big Tech has become the single largest threat to our privacy and eventual safety.

Books about the many baleful effects of Big Tech are now filling my shelves. These have not yet been taken to the charity shop: Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus; Move Fast and Break Things; The Internet is not the Answer; The people versus Tech and most recently, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.

Professor Zuboff’s weighty tome sums up the ‘all fretting’ and fear of Big Tech and nails their feet to the floor. It is a heavy read, but worth the effort. Take these two (somewhat frightening) quotes from Zuboff:

1“We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you have been. We can know more or less what you are thinking about.” (Eric Schmidt, former chairman, Google).

2 “This is the first time the world has seen this scale and quality of data about human communication,” says the Head of Data Science at Facebook and thus, says founder Mark Zuckerberg, it has “predictive models that will tell what bar you will visit in a strange city and that the bartender can have your favourite drink waiting.”

We are all tradable data points now. We have sleepwalked into allowing Big Tech to have access to our personal data and now they have so much of it, that they claim to know what you are going to do next.

Creepy or what? How did this happen?

Partly, it was ignorance. Facebook and Google were new; new things that we did not understand, so we happily gave them access to our data by ticking okay to terms of service we did not bother to read. Partly, it was complacency; being targeted with ads seemed to be a reasonable price to pay for free services that we value and is far from being one of the biggest crimes a corporation could commit. Partly, it was social norming; all our friends were Googling and joining Facebook, so we did too. Result: we have handed huge power to a few (mainly US) corporations – that are now some of the richest companies we have ever seen.

Surveillance Capitalism (SC) is radically different from previous versions

This is not just a new way to sell targeted advertising; it is a new type of capitalism, which has produced corporate panopticons, with more knowledge about human behaviour than any company before and more knowledge about citizens than any government. They also claim to have the analytical power to predict human behaviour using huge volumes of data. And then to change it.

In the future, the services we choose to use (Google, Google Maps and Facebook), will be just the tip of the iceberg. The plan is to hoover up growing volumes of data from multiple sources such as the automated data that will be produced from ‘things’: cars, home energy systems, mobile devices and much, much more. Data analysis will be enabled by a confluence of technologies; cheaper and increased data storage, faster computer processing, ultra-fast 5G networks (to link all those data signals from things together) and AI. If all this seems far-fetched, just think how fast the likes of Google, Facebook and WeChat have grown from being scrappy start-ups to corporate behemoths. Professor Zuboff shows that this is not just Big Tech, but a new type of capitalism (Surveillance Capitalism) that changes the rules of the game and needs to be understood on its own terms and controlled before it controls us.

How to spot SCs – according to Professor Zuboff

SCs “unilaterally claim human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data, which are fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon or later.”

SCs revive “Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labour, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labour, SCs feed on every aspect of human experience.”

SCs are protected by “the inherent illegibility of the automated processes that they rule, the ignorance that they breed and the sense of inevitability that they foster."

The ‘data signals’ that we send off are traded in ways that are obscure to the 99% of us who don’t understand ad tech – and used by third parties (that are invisible to us) to alter our behaviour.

SC services do not “establish constructive producer-consumer reciprocities. Instead, they are ‘hooks’ to lure users into their extractive relations in which our personal experiences are scraped and packaged as the means to others' ends.”

SCs know “everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others' gain, not ours.”

This is quite a charge sheet. Add to this that SCs pay as little tax as possible, whilst presenting themselves as brands that seek to “do well by doing good" (wearing a mask of Californian hippy idealism) and you have a toxic mix. Plus, the recent PR has been terrible.

Zuckerberg’s founding idea was to trick people into revealing their preferences through a kind of online social experiment. ‘Facemash’ (as it was at first called) was set up as a type of 'hot or not' game for Harvard students, which allowed visitors to compare the photographs of two female students side-by-side and let them decide who was hot or not.

The perversion of power

We already know how the power of SCs has been perverted. User data could also be used to predict individuals' voting intentions, and target them with tailored messages. Nothing terribly wrong with that, except that these ad buyers could be anonymous (and be external and ill-intentioned powers) and deliver messages that are either lies or designed to whip up anger or both. It turned out that these super-smart, self-described data lords were also not able to control what goes onto their platforms – not just mendacious political ads but worse – predatory paedophiles and extremists seeking publicity, like the recent shooter at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and much besides.

Freedom without responsibility

Big Tech, supported by a neo-liberal business culture in the US, argued that they should be free to grow and disrupt markets in pursuit of their new and exciting business model that will make them and their investors as rich as Croesus. Zuckerberg from the start has been prepared to cut corners and ignore privacy concerns. It is the DNA of Facebook. Zuckerberg’s founding idea was to trick people into revealing their preferences through a kind of online social experiment. ‘Facemash’ (as it was at first called) was set up as a type of 'hot or not' game for Harvard students, which allowed visitors to compare the photographs of two female students side-by-side and let them decide who was hot or not. Needless to say, the young women were not asked if he could use their photos. Zuckerberg faced expulsion from Harvard and was charged by the administration with breach of security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy. Zuckerberg has played fast and loose with user data ever since. Large quantities of it were handed over to Cambridge Analytica to allow targeted ads during the 2016 US elections. This is just the most recent and most egregious example.

What became visible in the US Senate hearings that followed is this: Facebook evidently did not think that great riches and influence brought responsibility. Freedom, which always sounds like a good thing, has a dark side. Freedom on Facebook/ YouTube /Instagram also meant opening Pandora’s Box and seeing all manner of ghastliness come creeping out. SCs, in pursuit of growth, turned into publishing platforms because their aggressive growth strategies demanded it. To win more ‘users’ (and have them spend more time on the platform), more ‘content’ was needed to fuel growth. And what is the best ‘content’ for this? News, scandal, outrage; this is what gets people clicking and sharing (and making money for SCs). The data showed that this was the way to grow fast and SCs always follow the data. Zuckerberg, in particular, does not really care what that content is – just that it wins and ‘engages’ users.

The accidental power brokers

SCs (and especially Facebook) are “accidental power brokers” but with an underdeveloped sense of corporate responsibility. Why? Partly, it is the personality and values of Zuckerberg himself and partly, the neo-liberal assertion of freedom to grow fast and make money. But when your company becomes huge and rich, power and responsibility are the inevitable by-products. And you will soon bump up against incumbent power brokers. You will make a lot of enemies and others will either reign in your power or (as the Chinese have done with WeChat), co-opt it.

Nineteen out of 20 European searches are on Google and 15 of the 20 most valuable tech firms in the world are American, so it is no surprise that the EU has been the first to develop policy. Americans are dithering and the EU is acting, partly to protect its own media and businesses.

Governments, late in the day, consider regulations

SCs in the West are now in the cross hairs of government and regulators. It was inevitable that this would happen at some point. Politicians desperately needed to play catch up. They had complacently allowed SCs to become huge as a result of four things. Firstly, aggressive growth strategies (the belief of Silicon Valley start-ups is that you have to get big or get eaten). Secondly, buying off competitors like Instagram (by Facebook) and YouTube (by Google) because you have to eat insurgents before they eat you. Thirdly, network effects – as free services become more valuable to their users, the bigger and more comprehensive they become. Fourthly, inertia; once you have your friends on Facebook, it becomes a pain to move away.

How to regulate SCs

Google and Facebook are now monopolists in online advertising in the West – yet, anti-trust legislation, in the US and Europe, relied on showing that these companies were pushing up prices to consumers, but they weren’t. Quite the opposite. They were giving away free services in order to hoover up huge volumes of data. Just as we ‘users’ have been slow to spot what they were up to, governments as well were out of date with their legislation and regulation. SCs are now also the biggest spenders on lobbying in Washington in order to maintain the freedoms that enabled them to get so big. However, all seem to agree now that Zuckerberg and his ilk cannot be trusted to regulate themselves.

The EU leads the way

Nineteen out of 20 European searches are on Google and 15 of the 20 most valuable tech firms in the world are American, so it is no surprise that the EU has been the first to develop policy. Americans are dithering and the EU is acting, partly to protect its own media and businesses. The EU rejected the idea of breaking up monopolists, which is being advanced by Democratic Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren in the US, believing that network effects would inevitably create new monopolists. Their first basic principle is that individuals should be given control over their own information and the profits from it. Their General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) asserts that you have the right to access, amend and determine who can use your data. So, in theory, you could take all your Facebook data and transfer it to another service that offers you better terms and/or acts more ethically. The second principle is that companies cannot lock out competition; this might mean that a dominant company would be forced to share bulk anonymised data so that the economy can function properly rather than be ruled by a few big firms.

What happens next

How will it all work out? It is too early to tell. The EU hopes its regime will unleash new services and companies in Europe and that the US will adopt GDPR as a rational way forward. But the US, in the grip of Trump’s economic nationalism, will probably see it as an attack on US companies. And there is a completely different model out there – the Chinese one. WeChat, in the space of five years, has overtaken Western brands to become an ‘everything’ app (search + social media + e-commerce) with the connivance of the Chinese state. It has even more data on citizens that Western SCs. That data is being used to monitor citizens in a way that makes George Orwell’s 1984 look prophetic. Surveillance Capitalism has morphed into The Surveillance State. It is a highly appealing model to authoritarian regimes around the world. Dictators saw what happened during the Arab Spring, when social media was used to organise insurgency and don’t want it to happen to them. So, my tip is to watch what Xi Jinping and Margrethe Vestager, the redoubtable EU Commissioner for Competition will do next.

Julian Saunders was CEO, Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy, McCann-Erickson.