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Tech Giants Are Watching You

The internet and the World Wide Web, and its key players are sliding into an era in which governments and policy wonks everywhere view them not with the adulation they received in the 2000-2010 period but with suspicion. Internet players are no longer seen as those wunderkinder who made it possible for me to e-mail or chat with my friends worldwide for free and to discover books and such stuff at far lower prices than in stores. The internet is presented now as a dark jungle inhabited with heartless for-hire geeks out to embezzle money from financial institutions, stoke communal frenzy or misuse personal information that trusting users gave them. Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School, raises all these frightful issues in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, analyses how this state of affairs came about and emphasises why we have to deal with these issues with a sense of urgency.

Perhaps the core of the issue is that internet industry players — search engines, social networking sites, online shopping sites or plain news sites — rely on advertising revenues for profits. The paradox of this has not been studied enough. For example, in the earlier era tech companies, such as Microsoft, wanted you to pay a monthly subscription and, therefore, had no need for advertising. The story of how the software companies of the Microsoft era relied on customers paying subscriptions and why the internet companies of the Google era came to rely on advertising revenue has not been fully told or understood. Shoshanna Zuboff devotes 100 or more pages of her nearly 700-page book to decode this advertising dependence but she attributes this to more insidious issues.

She believes that internet companies (she explicitly names the US tech giants) find it much more profitable to sell data and their predictions about their customers’ behaviour to willing buyers (i.e, advertisers) than to provide some useful services. She says the “means of production” for these tech giants are things like artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques. She calls the profits made from this kind of activity “surveillance profits”, i.e. money made out of surveillance of users who visit their sites. She says there is a huge international market that trades in such information and predictions about users’ behaviour, which she calls the “behavioral futures market”.

All this sent me into a deep reverie. When your business is critically dependant on advertising revenues, you do best by matching your offers to customer needs, which in turn means that you try to get as much data as you can about your prospective customer. This practice and all the mathematics about how to do this better than others was the stuff business schools have taught from the 1950s onward as “database marketing”. But in Ms Zuboff’s view, this amounts to “Surveillance Capitalism”.

At one level, it is only the basic techniques of direct marketing of the 1960s that are being used by internet companies. What frightens many people is that the extent of customer data is both wider and deeper and, worse, is gathered without the user being aware of the data collection because the web servers maintain a log of every action a user takes on a website. Europe has been at the forefront of legislation to ensure that non-European tech giants do not take data about Euro-zone citizens and store it outside Europe. India has also passed a series of government directives to preserve data about Indian citizens in the country.

All this talk about surveillance capitalism brings to mind George Orwell’s novel 1984 in which a character, Big Brother, is the ruler of Oceania, a totalitarian state where every citizen is under continuous surveillance: “Big Brother is watching you” has since become a metaphor for abuse of government power, particularly in respect to civil liberties. This anxiety in an era where the tech industry players loudly boast of the power of artificial intelligence, driverless cars and so on is understandable. But Ms Zuboff has a more frightening analysis.

She says citizens in western democracies are in a state of despondency and feel that “my children will not see the life I have lived”. She quotes the results of a 38-nation study in 2017 where 49 per cent say “rule by experts is good” (as opposed to by democratically elected leaders), 26 per cent endorse “rule by a strong leader” and 24 per cent prefer “rule by the military”. She also believes that the intellectual proselytisation of Friedrich Hayek (Nobel winner 1974) and Milton Friedman (Nobel winner 1976) has made “shareholder value maximisation” the supreme societal economic goal, and this gives Silicon Valley the licence to do what it wants with citizens’ rights so long as their market capitalisation continues to soar.

She believes that the time has come for all common people to stand up to the surveillance capitalism of internet companies and say “No More!”

Every technological era has had its signature book. Charles Dickens’ 1854 novel Hard Times drew attention to awful working conditions, particularly for child labour during the Industrial Revolution in England; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring drew our attention to the harm to the natural environment from synthetic chemical products such as pesticides. Is Ms Zuboff’s book attempting to do this for the information age, the era we are living through? – Business Standard

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