Notes on a U.S. congressional hearing: turning antitrust guns on Big Tech will not shield us from Orwellian puppeteering. Why did the politician-legislators choose the wrong focus?
Notes scribbled after the second day of grilling this week for the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google by the U.S. Congress’s antitrust judiciary committee:
Can protecting citizen-consumers really be the point of telling Big Tech chiefs that they have too much power, when this is news to no one?
If yes: horse, barn door;
problem has gone viral — the uncontrolled proliferation of harm to citizen-consumers (not Covid-19; the commercial surveillance virus);
hardly any citizen-consumers understand this or implications.
Conclusion: too late to save us so we’re doomed — barring lucky accident of stupendous dimensions.
1. In the frightening background to the hearing, unenlightened citizens:
A disturbingly high proportion of consumers in six countries surveyed by the San Francisco technology security firm Okta this year have no idea of the degree to which they are being tracked by companies. They are equally oblivious to being milked for their personal data. Though ‘people don’t want to be tracked, and they place a high value on privacy … 42% of Americans do not think online retailers collect data about their purchase history, and 49% do not think their social media posts are being tracked by social media companies. … Nearly 4 out of 5 American respondents (78%) don’t think a consumer hardware provider such as Apple, Fitbit, or Amazon is tracking their biometric data, and 56% say the same about their location data.’
With those findings, the reason why rich Big Tech is only getting richer in a pandemic-battered US economy is obvious. It is just as clear that the average citizen cannot be expected to grasp that the execrable business practices of the technology leaders — including deceptive ‘privacy settings’ in devices sold by the most successful brands or guaranteed by popular platforms — are being copied by every type and size of business.
2. Shouldn’t Congress’s focus be on eg., the unfair risks in installing apps — used to turn citizens into pawns of corporate surveillance?
Businesses once never thought of in connection with digital technology are forcing surveillance and tracking tools on us, mostly in the form of apps — but also when we think we are just popping in and out of their web sites.
You can, for instance, log on to the site of a credit card company you trust and for the fifth month in a row, have to complain to the IT support desk about error messages obstructing you from completing your task. Finally — with an embarrassed acknowledgment of your loyalty to the brand — an unusually honest tech support supervisor confesses that the site’s glitches are not accidental but part of an effort to push customers towards installing the company’s app, and conduct their transactions on their smartphones. You say exasperatedly, ‘Oh, to track what I do all day long?’ The techie does not answer directly, only laughs and says that although most customers seem to love the app, he would not install it on his phone. He promises to notify colleagues responsible for the manipulation that you will never install the app. The site goes back to working perfectly for you. (Note: that was an actual, not an imagined, experience.)
3. The companies will not stop at tracking, data-gathering, and individually targeted advertisements
As in this site’s testament two years ago about another low-tech company, the esteemed media organ we called ACN.com, — ‘Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us …’ — businesses are proceeding from spying on us and selling or sharing their discoveries with third parties to using them to limit or redirect our choices, and even scolding us for legal and reasonable behaviour that does not suit them. The ACN manager we argued with in that incident said that his organisation had ’special software tools’ that monitored every click and keystroke by visitors to its web site. In fact, the newspaper had graduated from unremitting surveillance to:
demanding that we make personal contact with our monitors; insisting that we submit to interrogation by these monitors, and account for our actions; cross-questioning us about our answers, and about why we say that the obtuse interpretations by monitors — inadvertently or tactically — of what we are doing are mistaken.
Imagine what that would mean in even more intrusive and unscrupulous hands.
4. Politicians in both parties campaigning in the U.S. presidential election are copying the methods of commercial surveillance: is this why antitrust rather than tracking and data-gathering was the focus of the Congressional hearing?
On 14 July, the U.S. president’s digital campaigning strategist Brad Parscale boasted on Twitter about a ‘biggest data haul’ on supporters and prospective voters. That was done with the same nasty spying technology, software apps. The Republicans are not alone, here. The campaign of the Democratic front-runner has its own equivalent. In fact, an article published by the MIT Technology Review on 21 June said that across the globe, politicians are using apps to organize support, manipulate supporters and attract new voters. Many are using the particular app developed for the Indian prime minister in his last campaign — which ‘was pushed through official government channels and collected large amounts of data for years through opaque phone access requests.’ To be perfectly clear, electioneering software used ‘“just like a one-way tool of propaganda”’ is also being used to govern India.
The Trump campaign app seeks permission from those who install it for — among other startling invasions of privacy — confirming identity and searching for user accounts on devices; reading, writing or deleting data on devices; getting into USB storage; preventing the device from sleeping.
The authors of the piece, Jacob Gursky and Samuel Woolley, say: ‘As researchers studying the intersection of technology and propaganda, we understand that political groups tend to lag behind the commercial ad industry. But when they catch up, the consequences to truth and civil discourse can be devastating.’
How strange that there has not apparently been the smallest whisper about any of this in connection with the politicians’ heroic interrogations of Big Tech leaders this week … or is it, really?
5. Is poetry all we will have left for comfort?
Society is being hurt by these technologies and practices in damage going deep and acquiring subtle dimensions, inexpressible except in poetry — as in these lines from the 20th-century poet William Empson:
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills …
… It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
Or there are the 1992 predictions of the late Leonard Cohen, in a song last quoted here a few months ago in a different context just as apt:
… There’ll be the breaking of the ancient
Your private life will suddenly explode …
… Give me absolute control
Over every living soul …