Social media critics who do not separate their objections are cooking up an anti-Big Tech jambalaya confusing regulators about the ‘surveillance capitalism’ that Google did not pioneer

 

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We have to discriminate carefully between light and dark elements of social media platforms

Here is an indirect reply to a tweet from @nikluac to @postgutenbergB, a few days ago  — which contained a link to a New York Times opinion piece by Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita of the Harvard Business School. Flashing red lights set off by a single paragraph in her essay led to post-Gutenberg.com [pG] ’s first investigation of Professor Zuboff’s hugely influential, best-selling book published a year ago, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. 

That work, which offers ‘little by way of a concrete agenda’ for internet-centred reform according to Evgeny Morozov, and other reviewers, is on a very different mission from this pG site — which argues for a specific scheme. The professor has succeeded uniquely and brilliantly at her task of so-called ‘consciousness-raising’. In seven hundred pages, her book explains and condemns the extent and precise mechanisms of what she and other analysts have named surveillance capitalism. 

It is the same phenomenon to which pG has been drawing attention since August of 2013  — with no claims of pioneering insight — in the course of campaigning for a proposal for the democratisation of publishing. This involved — in part — pointing out that like the Big Tech social media platforms, powerful newspapers were also spying on their readers without notification or consent. In posts here, digital invasions of privacy have been referred to variously as commercial surveillance or the surveillance business model — or, for anorexic attention spans incapable of absorbing more than a long header, as the ‘“free” surveillance/advertising-centred/data-cow business model’, or ‘the ‘pay-to-be-spied-on contract for e-commerce.’

Why did the following paragraph in Professor Zuboff’s NYT essay in late January — in the context of its headline and theme — set alarm bells jangling?

You Are Now Remotely Controlled

Surveillance capitalists control the science and the scientists, the secrets and the truth.

Only repeated crises have taught us that these platforms are not bulletin boards but hyper-velocity global bloodstreams into which anyone may introduce a dangerous virus without a vaccine. This is how Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, could legally refuse to remove a faked video of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and later double down on this decision, announcing that political advertising would not be subject to fact-checking. 

That is an intensely emotive jambalaya, and not a logical argument. It is a fact that the platforms do indeed serve as ‘bulletin boards’ for useful, unobjectionable and frequently important messages from millions of users, every day. The article unreasonably conflates the ‘hate speech’ debate — about the platforms as carriers of social viruses — with the discussion of what needs to be done about regulating commercial surveillance and the theft of our personal data. Professor Zuboff somehow blurs the refusal of social media platforms such as Facebook to control what some individual users post there with not one but two unrelated questions — first, about whether paid political advertising on those sites should be curbed or forbidden; secondly, about what limits should be placed on information-gathering about platform users.

In her book she mashes all those together on the grounds that refusing to censor their users means that the social media platforms attract more users; can keep them on their sites for longer to gather more information about them; and, by growing their audiences in this way, earn more advertising dollars. 

While that is all undoubtedly true, it does not add up to an argument for treating the platforms like the owners of newspapers that are responsible for the work of their employees. Besides, there is something far more critical at stake, here.

Professor Zuboff mostly ignores or pays only cursory attention to the indispensable role that the platforms have assumed for most of us as cyberspace equivalents of town halls, libraries, coffee houses, debating clubs, pubs and soapboxes, and of pamphleteering and other printed means of disseminating facts and opinions — among other institutions and media. 

In an interview with the editor in chief in the latest issue of Wired, the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, endorses the idea of access to the internet as a basic human right. He explains:

People are saying all the voices must be heard. The idea of a very small group of people can decide for everything is now being put into question very seriously. … [I]n each country, the trigger is different. In some cases it’s an economic-driven occasion, in others it’s pressure on the political system, in others corruption, and people react. But I see more and more people wanting to assume responsibility, wanting their voices to be heard. And that is the best guarantee we have that political systems will not be corrupted.

Here, pG — which has so far been among Facebook’s most relentless critics, most recently, for its new practice of selectively handing out gigantic pots of cash to famous newspapers and magazines — must concede that Mark Zuckerberg is right to say that ‘People of varied political beliefs are trying to define expansive speech as dangerous because it could bring results they don’t accept,’ and that he believes that ‘this is more dangerous to democracy in the long term than almost any speech.’ His idea of trying out ‘a court-style board to rule on site content’ — staffed not by Facebook managers but independent outsiders — is also a good one, as long as the arbiters are genuinely independent, and expensive professional lawyers from the rickety U.S. legal system do not get involved in the sorting out of complaints.

Also in this month’s issue of Wired, Gideon Lewis-Kraus argues in an excellent meditation on the Big Tech controversy that … 

The opportunity to vent on social media, and occasionally to join an outraged online mob, might relieve us of our latent desire to hurt people in real life. It’s easy to dismiss a lot of very online rhetoric that equates social media disagreement with violence, but […] the conflation might reflect an accurate perception of the symbolic stakes: On this view, our tendency to experience online hostility as “real” violence is an evolutionary step to be cheered.

[…] 

To worry about whether a particular statement is true or not, as public fact-checkers and media-literacy projects do, is to miss the point. It makes about as much sense as asking whether somebody’s tattoo is true.

By all means let’s urgently make rules or draft laws for curtailing user surveillance and data-gathering by Big Tech. Devious impersonations such as sophisticated, digitally-manipulated misrepresentations of people — such as the fake Nancy Pelosi video mentioned by Professor Zuboff — should be prosecuted like any other form of identity theft. If anything is making people angry enough to ensure all that, it is The Age of Surveillance — succeeding where earlier books drawing attention to the same or similar problems have had no remotely comparable impact.

Among them is one published in 1997 by the Harvard Business School Press — Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never-Satisfied Customer.** In it, the Silicon Valley marketing innovator and investor Regis McKenna shows Professor Zuboff to be mistaken in one of her central assertions, which is that surveillance capitalism was ‘pioneered and elaborated through trial and error’ by Google in 2001.

While search engine technology allowed for a massive refinement of commercial surveillance and made it incommensurably insidious when misused, at least one other company actually hacked out the path to it. Real Time drew attention to ‘an excellent illustration of the shades of interactivity to come.’  This was in a six-month interlude in 1996, in which PepsiCo offered teenage and Generation X consumers of Mountain Dew fizzy drinks radically discounted electronic beepers to use with no communication charges. 

They were also given access to a toll-free telephone hookup over which they could listen to interviews with sports heroes — and the chance to get discounts from twenty other companies keen to sell this demographic group things ranging from tortilla chips to snowboards. PepsiCo paged the 50,000 participants in its scheme once a week to ask them questions in a ‘real-time dialogue with them,’ and anticipated eventually creating ‘an enormous, nonstop, electronic focus group at a remarkably low cost.’ Unfortunately, as Real Time noted, this soon led to ‘a firestorm of unanticipated criticism’ of the soft drink producer,’ for exploitation:

The company had assumed that this, of all communications technologies, would be irresistible to parents — helping two-career couples worried about their children’s whereabouts to keep in touch with them. Instead, the promotion was denounced as disturbingly manipulative by parents and children’s advocates — like the Center for Media Advocacy in Washington, D.C., a watchdog group, and Action for Children’s Television.

The New York Times report on the project said that ‘soliciting information from youths through the Internet and pagers also raises privacy questions.’

A quarter-century later we know that the anxiety was prescient — but now we also have free speech protection to worry about, separately.

( A later post on the same topic is here

** Real Time was a short-order project, a book researched, written and edited on a brutal schedule, in less than six months, in 1996 — with the assistance of pG’s writer, who thanks @nikluac for the tweet that led to this excursion into the past.

How a well-meaning Angela Merkel choosing the wrong tactic for protecting Europe from Big (U.S.) Tech’s incursions could make Orwell’s dystopia our reality

 

What is the one essential step required for George Orwell’s nightmare of totalitarian centralisation — Nineteen Eighty-Four — to become even more plausible than it is already, in freedom-loving western countries? 

That is, the step that would determine exactly how we get to One power to rule them all: a single, giant database or store of personal information about us, created by merging all the facts the government has with all the data that the social media and other technology giants have been gathering — to give a Big Brother-for-real absolute control? 

A scoop by The Financial Times last week — Google lists no other source, and FT.com was offering free access to the piece when pG last checked — suggested, for an answer, a superficially innocent and at first glance, desirable proposal by a European leader. Proceeding with that proposal would create a  route to deadly centralisation far easier and more straightforward than the possibility sketched in the last pG entry: 

Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately?

In its report titled ‘Angela Merkel urges EU to seize control of data from US tech titans,’ The Financial Times said:

Angela Merkel has urged Europe to seize control of its data from Silicon Valley tech giants, in an intervention that highlights the EU’s growing willingness to challenge the US dominance of the digital economy.

The German chancellor said the EU should claim “digital sovereignty” by developing its own platform to manage data and reduce its reliance on the US-based cloud services run by Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

[…]

Ms Merkel was speaking just two weeks after Berlin unveiled plans for a European cloud computing initiative, dubbed Gaia-X, which it has described as a “competitive, safe and trustworthy data infrastructure for Europe”.

Peter Altmaier, economy minister, said the data of companies such as Volkswagen, and that of the German interior ministry and social security system, were increasingly stored on the servers of Microsoft and Amazon. “And in this we are losing part of our sovereignty,” he added.

He said 40 companies had signed up for Gaia-X, including Deutsche Telekom, SAP and Bosch, and the new platform would be ready by the end of the year. “We want to be able to offer companies . . . ministries and governments the chance to store their data in Europe, according to transparent, clearly recognisable standards.” 

[ continues here … ]

Yes, her remarks were about corporations, not private citizens, but the identical argument — digital sovereignty — could be used by the EU or some other government to justify commandeering the intimate personal facts that the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter are hoovering up about us all day long. With or without our permission, and whether or not we are paying for their services.

Why didn’t it occur to Frau Merkel (or her policy advisors) to throw all her weight behind decentralising the net as the solution — proposed by none other than the inventor of the World Wide Web, (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee — ? 

For an outline of his ideas on that subject, scroll down this post:

‘Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook’

O happy day! The ‘free’ surveillance/advertising-centred/data-cow business model has been superseded by the pay-to-be-spied-on contract for e-commerce

+++ dog + blonde postgutenberg@gmail.com

A watchful pair: he was too intent on his task to move a single canine muscle **

The tale of Big Brother at A Certain Newspaper (ACN.com), the last entry on this site,  omitted a crucial fact because it deserves its own post.

It is this: access to the visitor-sleuthing, visitor-interrogating ACN site is not free, but requires a subscription. Reader, if you haven’t noticed, this should tell you that things have gone from bad to dire — well beyond the normalisation of the surveillance business model’s (SBM) unwritten contract, in which the actual cost of ‘free’ admission and use of a site’s services is the loss of our privacy.

Bowing to the SBM meant accepting that when we pay no cash to use  Facebook — and innumerable other web services, including search engines — these companies can make records of our every click and cursor twitch. In many cases they do worse, following us wherever we go on the net, even after we have signed out of their domains. We have effectively told them, do come in and help yourselves to anything you’d like to know about us — or, as post-Gutenberg has observed before: by all means, please milk us like dumb data cows.

In the SBM’s successor, the pay-to-be-spied-on model for e-commerce that we are now bowing to in an almost imperceptible transition, we are giving them money to exploit us. In our delight with the discount on sub-zero winter boots and free shipping that the online retailer offers us, we do not object to being hooked up to the automated data-milking machines that our cash helps to finance ***.

The media version of this shift entails a striking switch in the terms of trade that our ACN.com encounter dramatised. In the old days of print, a newspaper handed over pages filled with news and analysis in exchange for our coins — and those paper pages had countless secondary uses. The exchange between buyer and seller ended, there. Today, a newspaper can believe that the sum billed to a credit card entitles it to monitor and record exactly how the owner of that plastic rectangle reads its online pages — to facilitate ‘personalising content and ads,’ as the ACN.com site informs visitors, ‘and to analyse how our sites are being used’ — today, tomorrow, … whenever.

What we call data-milking is blandly referred to by digital commerce specialists as ‘data-gathering.’ One such expert, Josh Bernoffwrites about ‘the data equation’ — implying that there is a fair and just equivalence in Facebook users paying with undefined ‘data and attention’ to upload what they want to communicate or ‘share’ on the social media platform. But saying ‘equation’ is applying a misleading euphemism to what the average Facebook user grasps, since that user does not understand the SBM, or know that it is also the advertising business model. Users do not understand how they enrich social media giants by letting them hawk facts about their behaviour and demographic and psychological profiles to other companies that use the information to maximise their advertisements’ ability to seduce them into buying their products.

In a perceptive post on Medium.com, Bernoff suddenly swerves sharply from tip-toeing around the sensitivities of e-commerce giants to making the critical point that users ‘are happy to give up an infinite amount of data’ to social media platforms and predicts — sadly, without exaggeration — that most of them will not stop doing this until ‘Facebook starts taking naked pictures of everyone in the shower and posting them without permission.’

That was a point made in his ruminations in early October about whether the software that Tim Berners-Lee (TBL) has been developing to return control of their data to internet users will be usable and used by enough people to reverse the soaring trend of exploitation, manipulation and restriction. Bernoff concludes that this will not happen unless a rich, dominant company can adopt and deploy it to support TBL’s project.

He nominates Apple for the task.

We cannot imagine a better use for Apple’s cash mountains than destroying the surveillance business model. But surely putting Apple in charge of creating ‘new devices, new experiences, new apps, and new ways to entertain yourself and experience life without requiring you to give up all your data’ would be a move in the wrong direction — further centralising power, when TBL is trying to take the web back to the freeing open space it was originally?

Today’s Tim Cook-led Apple appears to have high ethical standards, but what guarantee is there that this company’s tremendous potential for doing good would not be misused if he were replaced by — say, someone like Mark Zuckerberg, whose actions seldom match the high humanitarian ideals he claims to believe in, and who chronically breaks promises about protecting and respecting the privacy of Facebook users?

What might be more compatible with TBL’s aims? Putting Apple’s cash and managerial resources behind social media platforms that their users jointly own. Apple could assist with and finance their design and launch. 

See: ‘The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook …’ An extract:

[L]ast Wednesday, the New York Times presented, as if this were a brand new idea, the otherwise commendable suggestion by three scholars — Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms and separately, Nathan Schneider in 2016: ‘[W]hat if a social network was truly run by its users?’ In a newly published book they have written together, Heimans and Timms note the unfairness of what we — like many others — have been pointing out for years: the injustice of ‘the creative output of billions of people’ being turned ‘into a giant, centralized enterprise, with most users sharing none of the economic value they create and getting no say in the platform’s governance.’

[ continues here … ]      

** like any other well-trained ceramic dog

*** Why are we permitting this? See John Logan’s reference, in his comment on the last post-Gutenberg post, to soma — the drug crucial to subjugating the masses in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which creates ‘a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds’. Imagining themselves as ‘celebrities’ on their Facebook pages, and riding waves of happiness from online shopping discounts that let them buy-buy-buy probably works a similar dark magic on real, live, people in our time.

Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us — and shows why Tim Berners-Lee’s plan for resurrecting his open web needs all our support

lone burnt tree postgutenberg@gmail.com

+++ the burnt and the saved postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

What if, instead of the too-familiar, twee rituals tied to Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Eve, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Halloween, among other traditions for marking the onset of wintry blackness, we each had to construct our own tributes to ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ — from the intersection of things seen in real life and well-grounded fears haunting our sleep? Pictures above and below: charred landscape, after a wildfire in August

Reader, the slogan of our day — Big Brother is Watching You — is already out of date. On Friday the 19th of October, we heard him speak — to chilling effect. Not every website can make such a claim and what is that, if not a world-beating scoop?

How did BB sound? Not at all as you’d expect. Likeable enough for us to be tempted to fill in an application form immediately, if he were put up for adoption. His voice was as  fresh as a newly-opened petal, and endearing — possibly because he was only a proxy for the real BB, acting as his special agent; or because he has drunk from the fountain of eternal youth.

The shock of listening to his voicemail message had been preceded by emails from A Certain Newspaper — its digital version, which we will call ACN.com here — that we are reluctant to name before its managers have had a chance to reconsider what they are doing and dial back their officiousness. The opening lines of its message on the first day of this month read, in part:

Hello,

Thank you for being a regular user of [ ACN.com ].

Our records suggest that your [ ACN.com ] account is being used to copy a substantial amount of text from [ ACN.com ]. You can make copies of [ ACN.com ] content for your own personal use, but please don’t copy and paste articles for the benefit of other people. If you are copying for your sole benefit, then we apologise for emailing you. … [ continued for several sentences with variations on this theme.

We paid close attention to BB’s choice of language — that tricky use of the word ‘copy’ in a way that reminded us of Steven Poole’s splendid evisceration of weaselly language with a hidden agenda in Unspeak: Words are Weapons. Anyone knows that downloading is the accepted word for saving articles to an electronic device to read later — just as you might programme your videorecorder to capture installments of TV dramas for binge-watching when you can. That is all we are doing in our daily cut-and-paste exercises on ACN’s site, but calling it ‘copying’ was intended to make us feel guilty, as if it were tantamount to proof of being on the low road to despicable copyright infringement.

The message was unsigned and, unlike the Microsoft Word popup that says, ‘You have placed a large amount of text on the clipboard,’ was not accompanied by any equivalent of a friendly query about how we would like that clip to be treated. We ignored it with an incredulous ‘Phew!’ and forgot all about it. Precisely a week later, what should come sailing into our inbox but ‘Reminder: Referencing and sharing [ ACN.com ] articles’. Again, with an inaudible derisive laugh, we tossed it into our mental circular file reserved for mail from lunatics and turned to our next task — so, were all but struck dumb by the follow-up voicemail, ten days later, demanding that we telephone ACN.com‘s head office immediately ‘about a problem with your account’.

When we reached BB, he did not accept that without a smidgen of evidence of our making a mint or, indeed, the tiniest unit of currency from replicating and redistributing his newspaper’s articles — because we were doing nothing of the kind — his question and ACN’s emails were downright intrusive. How could even ‘copying’ be automatically equivalent to copyright violation? we asked, and we said that our reasons for shifting text from his paper’s site onto our machines were none of his business. We were too angry to draw the parallel to videorecording made here, in the paragraph before last. He had begun to annoy us by repeating, as if he were stone deaf — even after we began to roar at him in thousands** of decibels — ’Yes, but I need to ask you about this because, at this point, you have copied close to half a million characters.’

So what! we said — ‘You don’t need to ask your readers that question and wouldn’t have any right to object if we were downloading ten times that number. Please stop saying need!’ When there were only print newspapers, we pointed out, no emissary from one ever leapt around a corner shouting, Stop, fiend! — as we were using that day’s edition to soak up kitchen grease we did not want clogging our drains/ make paper planes/ stuff under draughty doors/ soak for papier-mâché/ line the floor to house-train a puppy/ crumple for fire-starter, … or even clip bits of, to copy at a photocopying machine and slip into letters to our one hundred dearest friends and colleagues.

‘You see,’ BB continued imperturbably, in his dulcet tones, ‘we have special software tools, and we have evidence of your doing this.’

Ah, yes. Those tools. Consider the terms of trade in this age of Big Data gathering. It isn’t just the Big Tech bunch — Facebook, Google, Twitter, and co. — that can and do collect and minutely analyse information about everything we do, not just on their sites, but with tracking cookies set to shadow us everywhere on the net. Not just to serve us better, as they claim, but to manipulate us. Almost every sort of business is at it. Newspapers — including ACN — that routinely warn their readers about this loss of privacy, and about sites milking us like data cows, paying nothing for the privilege, deserve to have their feet held to the fire for hypocrisy.

Post-Gutenberg made this point nearly five years ago, at the height of the Snowden surveillance brouhaha — in an entry linked to freely available information mysteriously overlooked by big names in print media:  ‘When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?’  One source we cited there, The Daily Banter, noted: ‘[T]hese publications, while taking on the pious, sanctimonious role of privacy purists, are using multiple third party resources to collect detailed information about nearly every visitor who reads one of the various posts about how the use of digital technology should be a completely private affair. … [ … continues …].’

What disturbs us about the telephone conversation forced on us by BB is far more than the particular argument we had with him. It’s that it is a foretaste of what lies ahead in the ever-expanding control of internet users; of the coercive possibilities that can follow from the wholesale misconstruing and misrepresentation of our most innocent habits and pastimes. BB has 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

In 2014 we quoted an artist friend, Marzia Faggin, about her dystopic joke that does not seem all that funny now, about doing her grocery shopping defensively, to avert being ‘dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.’ 

This year, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has been quoted everywhere about doing what he can to resurrect the dream-come-true of the early decades of the internet, in whose creation he collaborated with other pioneers — the dream of the net as a liberator of people, an open space free of centralised control and gatekeepers. Recent headlines have read: ‘Tim Berners-Lee is devastated about misuse of the web;’  ‘“The web ha[s] failed instead of served humanity;”’Why the Web’s inventor wants to take back his invention;’  — most of these stories spinoffs from, or commentaries on, an interview with him by a Vanity Fair writer titled ‘I was devastated.’ 

A report from the San Francisco correspondent of Les Echos drew a fully-earned parallel to Docteur Frankenstein ‘surpris par sa création’ —  an inventor appalled by the creature’s transformation from an open highway that anyone was free to travel, into a collection of monopolistic platforms whose owner-operators twitch on the puppet strings of internet users with nowhere else to go, to meet the addictions and needs they satisfy on them.

In her very good detailed explanation and summary of TB-L’s plans and technical innovations intended to re-decentralise the net, Zoe Corbyn quotes net veterans under no illusions about how difficult this is likely to be. With careful understatement, Brewster Kahle, the founder of the not-for-profit Internet Archive, for one — told her that he expects that because ‘[t]here are going to be a lot of forces for the status quo,’ the success of any such initiative is far from ‘inevitable’.

In the meanwhile, we can each do our bit by reporting on what we learn from watching BB watch us, amassing all the data we can about his newest incursions into our freedom and intimate spaces, and demanding that he be a model of transparency about what he is up to.

Let’s do whatever it takes to help TB-L become his worst All Hallow’s Eve nightmare — Bigger Brother.

moonrise over scorched earth postgutenberg@gmail.com

** No, not their actual unit of measurement.