Can we fight mass surveillance with antitrust laws?

With kind permission I am reproducing an ongoing conversation between Cory Doctorow and me. The conversation refers to my article that appeared in summer 2018 in ACM's XRDS magazine, "The Case for Regulating Social Networks and the Internet". As that isn't generally available you can read our programme instead.

Cory wrote:

I differ from your views in this piece in that I locate the problem not in surveillance capitalism per se, but in surveillance capitalism as a byproduct of monopoly capitalism. 40 years of antitrust malpractice has produced monopolies and inequality, and banishing ads in favor of micropayments doesn't fix that, it just makes it worse (people with no money can't "trade the civil liberties they used to pay with for cash payments"). We can't improve our discourse by conditioning access to it on the ability to pay: charging for access to the public sphere just means that rich people get to increase their dominance of that sphere.

I think our visions are reconcileable: Impeding surveillance ads doesn't mean we're abolishing advertising completely - we can still allow for untargeted advertising like the world was happy to have before the web got perverted. Given no alternative, the whole financial volume of advertising would be reset to be spent in a civil rights compatible way and cut out the monopolists whose monopoly has arisen from knowing individual targets better than themselves. If all ad placement is equal, anyone can place ads [without needing a Google or Facebook to place it strategically for them]. And a big chunk of the financial volume stays within the economy: the one that is now ending up in the pockets of the monopolists.

Whereas recovering decent antitrust legislation, which is certainly also a good idea, would still produce a number of middle men who extract data from the ad market by collecting psychological data about humans and acting as the new split-up but still greedy faceboogles. So I don't see fighting monopoly as sufficient to handle the problem.

Cory says:

Any critique of surveillance capitalism has to start with monopolism and inequality: a society with pluralistic power and a more equal wealth distribution would be better poised to push back against take-it-or-leave offers of surveillance for service; and a society where no online giant can oversee the comms of more than a few thousands or even a couple million, people would be one in which breaches and suborning would be a manageable risk, rather than an existential one.

I love to criticize the features of capitalism, but pointing out how this technology is undermining the constitutional foundations of our society seems to me a more dramatic aspect that even neocons and neo-liberals must acknowledge, if they are willing to think hard enough.

We need to save the ability to exercise any kind of democracy, then we can talk about higher goals, like pushing for the kind of inequality regulation we had before 1979. But if we lose the ability to even influence politics, everything is lost.

Hey, you said it yourself.. the Internet is the battleground where all other political fights will be lost or won, and we're losing it. Economic equality would not fix the ability of certain few to manipulate the electorate. Also it is a far less probable political goal to achieve, whereas everyone's yearning for decent Internet regulation.

I just met Nafeez Ahmed yesterday, the journalist who figured out how USgov has been working on getting complete control over technology ever since 1995. Such legislation is still in place. Can you name a good reason why USgov would not aggregate all the data in order to manipulate elections/public opinion in foreign countries like GCHQ has done with the Falklands in 2009?

Also, governments are better off if such data cannot be collected and abused to tweak elections, by anyone!

Cory again:

The thing to realize is that in every other industry, there are people having this same conversation: "How do we cope with concentration in the [textile|energy|finance|automotive|etc] industry and the abuses we're suffering at the hands of the dominant giants?" We're all worrying about the same thing, but we're parochially certain that the internet's problems are about tech, and not capitalism. Everyone's problems are about capitalism. Textiles didn't become concentrated because of first-mover advantage and network effects: they became concentrated because we stopped enforcing antitrust law and allowed for the growth of tax-havens and other inequality accellerators. Which is also how we got an abusive tech sector.

This is all true for all the industries you mention, but there's something about technology that makes it a lot worse. Splicing things up may have worked for physical things, like to avoid a monopoly on tulip trade, but in the age of digital, noone can tell how all the data has been gathered elsewhere, without consent by anyone, completely ignoring EU legislation, as the Court of Justice of the European Union acknowledged regarding Safe Harbor.

The reason why nothing is like the Internet lies in the way the object of monopoly is volatile, suitable for infinite copying and up for storage in Bluffdale. So the methods of antitrust are insufficient, even in those parts of the world where they still exist.

And Cory:

Tech's CEOs and shareholders are not particularly evil or reckless: they're exactly as evil and reckless as everyone else, and the difference between tech in the Golden Age of Decentralization and today isn't a net increase in evil and recklessness: it's a net decrease in the forces that held those urges in check.

Agree on that, only that the power to psychosocially manipulate every human being on the planet is easy to copy and trade. And that is unlike any other object of trade ever seen before. Any employee can walk out of an ISP or chat app provider with a USB stick full of data revealing psychological biases and deficiencies of human beings, then sell it on the darknet for a lifetime stock of unregulated crypto-currency. Then whoever acquires that data is in a position to change the outcome of elections. The idea that people would not do that is already disproven.

We can't afford to treat the Net like any other subject of capitalism, Cory. This time it's about our lifetime liberties and about our children who would be completely transparent and predictable by the time they understand what it means.


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