What comes next for surveillance capitalism?



Facebook may well pull through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but its standing as a business has undeniably taken a monumental hit. Mark Zuckerberg's apology before the US Senate probably seemed like savvy strategy in theory, but it rang hollow not least because, as Matt Taibbi put it, the man 'exudes all the warmth of a talking parking meter'.

Mark Zuckerberg hearingBut whether the company fails or succeeds is somewhat beside the point — we are finally starting to have discussions about the desirability of its business model. Because of course, Facebook is not the only company that strip mines data with almost sociopathic disinterestedness. The experience of the last two years has meant that the halcyon days of unregulated tech platforms may well be numbered. The big question is what comes next.

The call to #DeleteFacebook is growing in strength. This strategy may work for some people, and the movement highlights the importance of platforms respecting the rights of users to control their data, including to download and delete it. But the focus on users frames this as a problem of individual responsibility, rather than a structural feature of technology capitalism. Independent media, small businesses and countless communities are dependent on the platform. They have the right to privacy too.

Moreover, despite Zuckerberg's slipperiness on this point, it is clear that Facebook collects data on people who do not have an account. As such, imposing obligations on individuals to manage their own privacy is an insufficient response. Giving up driving a car might be good for the environment, but we are not going to address the problem of climate change unless with can come up with a much broader and more imaginative strategy.

It seems like this kind of thinking is not going to be found on Capitol Hill. Plenty of commentators have mocked the spectacle of the testimony, with the Vogon-like senators interrogating the perennially youthful Zuckerberg. Like Justice Dyson Heydon, it is easy to imagine some of these old white men ordering a hapless intern to print out their Facebook wall in preparation for the hearing.

Some of this criticism is justified. Zuckerberg's testimony was seriously lacking in meaningful accountability, and law-makers have been asleep at the wheel when it comes to regulating these platforms.

But playing it for the laughs misses something. The media relished Utah Republican Orrin Hatch's question as to how Facebook makes money, given its service is free. 'Senator, we run ads,' Zuckerberg replied, somewhat bemused. But when observed in full, it is clear the exchange was not about the senator's ignorance, it was designed to paint any expectation of privacy as naïve. Whining users are chumps, he implied. Hatch's very next sentence was about the dangers of over-regulation.


"Democrats appear most animated not by the manipulation of voters, but the fact that they failed to figure out how to do it themselves."


There are things we can learn from this scandal and Zuckerberg's testimony, both about surveillance capitalism and its relationship with the state.

We need to be very careful of proposals by government that regulate data collection and management in ways that suit their own agenda. The prostration of Zuckerberg came with a commitment to take more 'proactive' responsibility for how his company connects people. It is not hard to see how this might dovetail with the objectives of the state to institute order and stifle dissent. The NSA has been harvesting our data for years, and any changes proposed by the US government will have to preserve that capacity. Indeed, Democrats appear most animated not by the manipulation of voters, but the fact that they failed to figure out how to do it themselves.

Back home, the Australian federal Privacy Commissioner has announced an investigation into whether Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have used the personal information of Australians in ways that breach the Privacy Act. This is a welcome development. However, political parties enjoy an exemption from the Privacy Act, such that any relevant conduct may not even be investigated by the commissioner.

What this means is that we cannot rely on elected officials to do their jobs properly, or companies to revise their business model. Nonetheless, this moment presents an enormous opportunity: people all over the world are beginning to reject the logic of technology platforms that profit from personal data, and are hungry for alternatives.

That insight needs to be converted into proposals for law reforms that are difficult to discount, demands for policies that are bad for business if ignored, and a cultural shift in how we understand data and what it says about us. It is also the perfect moment to explore alternative technologies that focus on decentralisation, and find ways for them to be incorporated into daily life.

Technology capitalism and the surveillance state will collude when they need to, and bicker in public when it suits them. The hope lies in everyday people forcing them to change their ways.



Lizzie O'SheaLizzie O'Shea is a lawyer and writer. He book on technology, politics and history will be published with Verso in 2019.

Topic tags: Lizzie O'Shea, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, data



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Existing comments

Why is this headlined surveillance "capitalism"? The article spells out that the state is in cahoots with this activity. And I vaguely suspect that socialist states might just be a little interested in surveillance too, maybe even going back a few decades. But, no, it's "capitalism" that's the designated ogre! Also remember: for all its undoubted crimes, you don't HAVE to join Facebook. But in China or North Korea, you have no choice about being watched.

HH | 17 April 2018  

All this complaining --- about your data being turned into a psychographic profile of yourself to be sold to advertisers who then know which of your buttons to push --- is precious. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. You pay less than peanuts, you get monkeyed. And so you should. Facebook is not a public good like the traditional economic examples of public goods, non-toll roads and lighthouses, where the state forces everyone to pay for these facilities whether or not they use them because if it didn’t, nobody would pay for them. Facebook is a private good with the same problem as free-to-air radio/TV and the union movement – free riders, people who expect benefits for free. But there is no free lunch. The resources that comprise Facebook (or free-to-air broadcaster or union) are costly. The someone who elects to pay for the technology so you don’t is a less clumsy version of the hit-and-miss advertiser of free-to-air. Your psychographic profile is, essentially, your echo chamber. As long as advertisers aren’t pushing (or push-polling) lies into your chamber, there is nothing to complain about as the data you’re receiving is the data you want because it fits your preconceptions.

Roy Chen Yee | 19 April 2018  

"Facebook is not the only company that strip mines data with almost sociopathic disinterest". What a brilliant line, Lizzie, and so true. I have always refused to join one of these 'modern' forms of communication and glad I have. It's annoying though when you want to comment on other sites that you HAVE to be a member of one of them. Well, that's one way of shutting me up. And HH, I agree totally - it's another example of arguing from an agenda rather than objectively about a 'truth' or issue. It's also so interesting how 'socialists' in the west have gotten very wealthy using the capitalist system in which they live. Also, look at Norway, one of the most socialist countries - it simply couldn't survive without its investments in more capitalist societies. There are so many 'dirty' words which are only 'dirty' because we've been 'educated' into thinking they are 'dirty'. We need to constantly be asking ourselves, always, "Why do I think what I do, or the way I do"? What the bad examples of socialism and capitalism lack is morality and humanity. It's about these, not isms.

Stephen de Weger | 19 April 2018  

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