Dr. Shoshana Zuboff, author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, is calling on lawmakers to criminalize Big Techs “secret extraction of behavioral data from our lives” and put their immunity from “crackpot” versions of free speech that flourish on online platforms firmly in the crosshairs, as governments around the world turn their attention to crafting new rules of the road to rein in technology giants.
“There is no such thing as cyberspace, there is no world that is somehow exempt from the charter of rights and laws that we live by in our societies,” Dr. Zuboff told IANS during a wide ranging interview, days after Facebook’s self-appointed ‘Supreme Court’ punted its decision on former US President Donald Trump’s account, locked for the last four months.
After years of letting Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric run its course, Facebook and Instagram locked his accounts on January 7, (only) when Trump was on his way out of the White House. Trump supporters planned their violent storming of the Capitol on internet platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Parler. Beyond the shiny object of Trump’s account, urgent questions now loom in the US and elsewhere-about the ultimate currency of targeted online advertising which is the uninhibited collection and subsequent juicing of consumers’ behavioural data.
In the US, pressure is also intensifying to strip online platforms of special immunity carved out for companies 25 years ago. Under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, internet companies in the U.S. are generally exempt from liability for the material users post on their platforms. Section 230 states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
After chilling details emerged in the charging documents for the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, hostility towards Big Tech’s harms has increasingly become a bipartisan political phenomenon. Yet, America remains a “laggard” in Big Tech regulation, says Zuboff, echoing the broad consensus among tech policy mavens. Lawmakers in Europe and now increasingly other countries like Australia are outpacing their American counterparts.
Zuboff frames the current moment as an “opportunity” to construct a coherent vision of what a digital and democratic society and future would look like.
“And the first place we start is that we have to recognize that surveillance capitalism has really prosecuted the wholesale destruction of privacy,” Zuboff said.
Through Zuboff’s lens, all the work done till now on privacy is “not enough to keep us safe in this new world.” The way to begin reclaiming lost ground, according to Zuboff, is to first identify “the goal state” of human rights in the digital public square and work “backwards” from there.
“Every conversation about data is already a conversation that has lost the war, because a lot of the data that we’re arguing about shouldn’t exist in the first place. Unless, individuals have decided that it should exist or unless democracy has,” says Zuboff. “It’s a downstream battle.”
Zuboff makes the case that the traditional objectives of capitalism cannot be realised without social relations surveillance which turns our lives into behavioural data, often in deviant ways.
Zuboff wants lawmakers to focus their legislative creativity on the “upstream” problem – the gap between “what we can know and what companies know about us, between what we can do and what can be done to us” through the knowledge that algorithms amass at population scale.
“This really has become a private surveillance state. It’s not the surveillance state that (George) Orwell feared. It’s a surveillance state owned and operated by private capital.” Zuboff terms the mechanics of extraction a violation of “elemental epistemic rights.”
Asked about how Europe, Australia and India are wading into stronger regulatory roles at the intersection of media and tech platforms, Zuboff points to two regulatory proposals in Europe – the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act – “which shift the trajectory of the Titanic so we’re no longer heading toward the anti-democratic iceberg of surveillance capitalism.”
“We need to be able to confront extraction head on. And we need to have laws that make this kind of secret extraction illegal, simply criminalise it,” she said.
Zuboff describes targeted online advertising as the “first markets that traded human futures” via the foundational architecture of Google’s “first globally successful predictive product” – the click through rate. “And that was the basis for online targeted advertising which is based on advertisers bidding on what ads we will click on and the likelihood that we will click through to their websites and buy their wares or services.”
On the demand side, markets that commodify human behaviour and trade in human behaviour should be “outlawed”, says Zuboff.
“We never agreed to it. And there is almost no law to contain it, and yet if you fundamentally described this process to any child you say ‘hey, somebody took from me without asking, now they’re selling it and they’re using it to make money for themselves, what should I do?’, that child will say they stole something from you. You should call the police.”
(Nikhila Natarajan is on Twitter @byniknat)