ourVoices is a new podcast from openDemocracy's ourEconomy section which explores the crisis of our economic system – and promotes intelligent debate about what should replace it.
The podcast will bring together some of the most exciting thinkers from around the world, and give a voice to those who are putting new economic ideas into practice from the ground up.
In the first episode, we discuss the debate over big tech and data ownership, and examine exciting initiatives from around the world that place data back into the hands of the collective – not the private few.
We are living in an age of unprecedented concentrations of wealth, knowledge and power. Whereas the 20th century saw a shift from industrialization to financialization, the market giants of the 21st century are the tech companies of Silicon Valley.
In 2018 Apple became the world’s first trillion dollar company. They have now been joined by Amazon and Microsoft. Everyday 1.5 billion of us scroll through Facebook and we make 3.5 billion searches on Google. One third of our annual online retail spending in the US now goes to Amazon.
From liking photos on Instagram, ordering rides on Uber, or streaming films on Prime – these companies have seamlessly integrated interactive technology into the fabric of our intimate everyday lives.
These platforms define the modern experience.
What is the logic driving these companies, and why does this matter? Why is data so valuable? What policies are on the table to address the rise of big tech? And how do we go beyond to build progressive, radical and democratic alternatives?
In this first episode of ourVoices – a podcast brought to you by openDemocracy – we will explore the debate over big tech and data ownership – imagining a world where we put data back into our hands – to benefit the collective, not the private few.
In our time Surveillance Capitalism claims private human experience for the market dynamic, as a free source of raw material that is translated into behavioral data, these data are then combined with advanced computational ability to create predictions. Predictions of what we will do, predictions of our behavior, predictions of what we will do now, soon and later, and these predictions are sold to business customers, in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively on human futures. [clip]
That was Shoshana Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School and a leading thinker on information technology.
In her recently acclaimed book Zuboff sets out a logical framework for how these companies operate, which she labels Surveillance Capitalism. In her understanding, the resource fueling this new economy is data.
Data, when collected and analyzed en masse by powerful algorithms, creates valuable predictive models of human behavior and preferences, which are then sold to the real consumers like advertisers or political campaigns.
This means that what Zuboff calls an ‘extraction imperative’ is created, a race to collect as much data as possible. So the creation of new technology is tailored to maximize user engagement.
Whether we realize it or not, we are being mined for data.
[Clip: Google Home Mini]
Let’s take the recent smart home phenomenon. These devices are being offloaded into the consumer market at deflated prices – sold as convenience products, but also as mechanisms of data extraction.
Every time you ask Alexa to do your weekly shopping, play your favorite track, or call a friend – it is collecting raw data to feed the extraction imperative.
So why does this business model matter? Why should we care about mass data accumulation?
If you ask people how they feel about big tech companies using their data, you tend to get two reactions:
Either you get an attitude of indifference: Something like.. I understand this is happening, but I have nothing to hide, and even if I did care – there’s nothing I can do about it anyway.
And perhaps more commonly, the convenience argument: I don’t mind who collects my data, these companies are only using it to make my life easier.
But a growing number of scholars and activists believe that these responses misrepresent the significant power of these platforms. As the influence of big tech over the individual grows with data accumulation, power dynamics intensify, consolidating preexisting tendencies of bias and discrimination.
Invasive breaches of our private information threaten our fundamental right to privacy; Whilst the ability to manipulate everyday interactions threatens our agency, and with it the very notion of individual autonomy.
With intense competition for financial rewards, the incentive for more sophisticated forms of intrusion and manipulation likewise intensify. As it stands, there is little to prevent major tech companies which seek to ‘datafy’ every aspect of our daily lives.
Nick Srnicek, an academic in Digital Humanities at King’s College London and author of the book Platform Capitalism, tells us more.
It’s inherent within capitalism that it’s going to do these things, particularly when personal data becomes such a powerful way to generate money, I won’t say it generates money in itself but its a way to generate money. And given particularly the kind of economic slump we’ve been in, and continue to be in since the 2008 crisis, capitalists are going to continue to push to make money in any way they possibly can, they’re going to fight against any sort of regulation or reform of these things, and I don’t see reform being sufficient to get rid of these problems.
For people like Nick Srnicek, understanding data as part of a drive to constantly extract value sees it not as a new age of surveillance, but as part of a longer term trend inherent within capitalism’s economic logic. An effort to enclose all aspects of the social commons into the market dynamic.
In this sense, many argue that the problems of data ownership fall under the broader concerns with capitalism’s economic logic. With the constant drive for profit, wealth under capitalism tends to accumulate, creating significant inequalities of resources.
Data is no exception. As major tech companies benefit from economies of scale, the natural tendency of data collection is toward monopolization of the digital infrastructure. The resulting wealth and power dynamics between ‘users’ and these firms reflect historic inequities within the global economic order.
While these tech companies have taken advantage of a ‘race to the bottom’ to produce many of their physical products, they have also expanded their presence in the global south.
We asked Anita Gurumurthy from IT for Change to tell us more.
American companies and a few others from China have been taking the data away from the Global South. This data has allowed them to build a first mover advantage, and owing to this first mover advantage they have become monopolies. If this advantage, let us say, gets inverted on account of the fact that data is able to be retained in the countries of the Global South, that will be a tremendous loss, because the knowledge paradigm of the 21st century depends on whether you can make use of your data, you can make good of the data pools that are generated in your jurisdiction and territories.
This globalized system of data accumulation contains a vast opportunity cost. Whilst the big tech companies of Silicon Valley channel data for profit generation; like the targeting of adverts to make you buy products. We could instead be utilizing these resources for the benefit of people - for infrastructure, health care, and transitioning to a zero carbon future.
So how can this be done? How do we transition away from a data-for-profit system?
One popular mechanism being examined by policy makers is regulation.
Remember all of those emails flooding your inbox…? Legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation from the European Union introduced in May of 2018 is designed to limit the invasive power of platform companies –setting out boundaries for data extraction, and laying out rules of consent for an individual’s privacy.
For instance: under GDPR sites must notify users of data they collect and ‘opt-in’ or consent to that data being gathered. Individuals now also have the right to have their data erased if requested.
Despite this progress, most agree that more proactive policies are needed. Both in the US and Europe, consensus has grown around the introduction of antitrust and competition law to deal with the monopolistic tendencies of big tech.
In the US, the charge for new competition laws is being led by 2020 Democratic Presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren.
[Clip: Elizabeth Warren]
Warren advocates breaking up big tech by separating ownership of the marketplace from producers using that platform. Any platform with an annual global revenue of 25 billion or more would be prohibited from operating on their own marketplace. This would affect Amazon Marketplace, Google’s ad exchange, and Google Search. She also intends to appoint regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers.
Beyond Warren, there is also bipartisan support for antitrust scrutiny. The Justice Department and FTC are opening up antitrust investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. Whilst Congress is similarly looking into the competitive practices of theses tech giants.
In Europe earlier this year, the EU fined Google $1.5 billion euros for antitrust violations in the online advertising market. Similar fines have also been leveled against Facebook after its acquisition of WhatsApp. In the UK this past June, then Prime Minister Theresa May announced the creation of a Digital Markets Unit to undertake “an industry-led Tech Competitiveness Study.” The report concluded that competition in the tech markets should be promoted through merger control and antitrust mechanisms.
Yet do these regulatory or antitrust policies actually strike at the heart of the problem of data extraction?
Nick Srnicek thinks not.
I think that when you look at the actual problems are that we’re interested in, they don’t come from the size of these companies they come from competition. So the reason why these companies want to collect more and more data is that they’re competing against each other for advertising share for instance, or for more personalization which draws in more users. So it’s not that these companies are too big, it’s that they’re competing with each other to do this stuff. Another example is competition for attention, so one of the reasons why Twitter hasn’t really cracked down on Nazis flourishing on its website is simply because it causes engagement, it causes users. Why has YouTube not cracked down on the far-right radicalization on it’s platform? Because it brings in more engagement and more eyeballs. So this competition for attention is what is causing a lot of the problems with Fake News, far-right radicalization, the polarization of politics online, we can trace that all to competition not to the size of these companies.
In addition to competition law many, including prominent whistleblower during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Brittany Kaiser, advocate the idea of individual data ownership. In this scenario, Big Tech companies would be legally obliged to pay each individual for the data they are extracting. But personal data, before it is processed and analyzed, has virtually no value. Significant value is generated only when this data is collected as part of a larger pool, which can then be processed and analyzed to provide meaningful results or predictions. Moreover, Srnicek believes individual data ownership would only exacerbate existing inequalities:
The idea of getting paid for our data effectively turns it into a market for data. This shouldn’t be the Left’s approach to this stuff. The unintended consequences are things like the inequality of privacy, so if you’re rich you don’t need the money from selling your data so you simply have your privacy. If you’re poor you’re incentivized to sell all your personal data, and the more personal it is the more valuable it is, so there’s real inequalities built into this system in effect where privacy becomes a market rather than a basic right.
Given the compulsive nature of capitalist competition, an adequate response must tackle the incentive structure at the root of this extraction imperative. What Srnicek proposes is the idea of collective data funds. The idea of a data fund is something that is becoming more politically popular, from ideas of a national fund, to data pools owned and organized by local and municipal governments. In this proposal ownership of data is transferred into public hands, with value directly reinvested into public services. For Srnicek, this form of data ownership holds significant advantages.
Practically what I think is quite useful about this is that you can have that collective ownership where you’ve determined what the rules of access are for this data, you can take various measures to ensure as much anonymity as possible, and you can also enable personal fine grain controls of the data as well. So you can imagine a sort of system where the default setting is that you give some of your data that is not all that personal, but then you have the option to give more data if you feel like say your medical history would be really useful for researchers, you could give away that data to the data fund, or if you wanted to keep more privacy you’d have the option to completely opt-out.
Criticisms of this idea generally surface around feasibility of creating large anonymized pools of data. This is particularly the case when ownership of these pools is entrusted to the state. Concerns appear over use of public data by the national security apparatus, and the possibility of mass surveillance. These have been raised especially in light of NSA revelations exposed by Edward Snowden.
[Clip: Snowden revelations]
If the state has unlimited access to valuable data sets on the population, it poses a serious threat to our civil liberties. This is evident in the day-to-day workings of today’s Chinese state, whose repression is enabled by the swathes of personal data collected on the population; which informs methods of coerced social cohesion. Therefore, data pools need to be properly anonymized through encryption techniques – while a definitive separation from the national security architecture must be guaranteed.
Srnicek believes that these privacy assurances are possible under Collective Data Funds.
There are some people who scoff at this idea that it is possible, but we have a really good example in the US of a communications system which the government would love to spy on but we’ve built up a series of legal rules to prevent that happening – the US Postal Services. It is owned by the government and has been controlled by the government for over 100 years now, but they built in privacy rules from the beginning which meant that today for instance, it is much harder for the NSA to get data from the Postal Service which the government owns that it is from Facebook. So I think we can pass legislation that actually enables privacy to be preserved in a much better way than it is right now, and on top of that we can also add technical means that mean this stuff is encrypted, that its kept accountable, that there’s unforgeable ways of seeing who’s accessed this data and what they’ve done with it. So yes I think there are technical and legal ways of ensuring privacy.
But before we rush into models of large scale data funds, we need to consider the practicalities of such projects. To do this, it is useful to examine local, municipally driven projects, already being trialled around the world –demonstrating that an alternative is possible. Prominent amongst these in Europe is the work of DECODE.
DECODE is testing multiple initiatives that seek to place both data and the digital infrastructure back into the hands of the public, creating secure platforms to engage in local initiatives. For example, the Decidim project involving the Barcelona City council – is a democratic platform with more than 60,000 users that provides a secure app for petitions, reporting civic issues, and taking part in local policy making.
Mathew Lawrence, founder of the think tank Common Wealth specializing in democratic forms of ownership, believes these local examples demonstrate the possibility of repurposing the value of public data.
I think clearly the examples in places like Ghent in Barcelona in Amsterdam, show that this tension, this choice between on the one hand the rise and expanding power of universal platforms that enclose, which dominate, which soar ahead of all other actors and have immense infrastructural power and the reclaiming of digital sovereignty in which digital technologies of data, their control rights, their access and their use is repurposed to expand human flourishing – clearly these examples show that it is possible with imagination, with institutional innovation and political bravery to create alternative architectures for the future relative to where we’re heading in the present.
So how can we successfully scale up similar projects to compete in the rest of the world when the resources and market share of existing tech platforms are so dominant? Ultimately, this boils down to politics, a matter of power and distribution.
We could have an alternative government that might well be committed to exactly those points about expanding collective rights of data, about rethinking the creation of data worlds, around the ownership of data infrastructure. I think Labour, and indeed Plaid Cymru, the SNP and progressive left parties everywhere, would be missing a trick if they didn’t come up with very serious policies for both taming the power of existing actors, and more importantly in some ways, scaling up democratic alternatives. I think if they can get that right, whether it’s municipal place-based or whether it’s national, I think that sense of owning the future, the sense of the Left being about modernity and reshaping technological development toward emancipatory ends, if Labour and the wider Left aren’t on that train, they’re definitely missing a trick.
As the neoliberal consensus that has gripped Western politics for the best part of 40 years begins to unfold, we are seeing a polarization.
On the one hand, an increasingly radical and divisive politics, spear-headed by an array of populist politicians. But on the other, a radical progressive agenda. One built around a Green New Deal, universal health care, and eradicating poverty.
As one of the most valuable resources available to humanity today, there is no doubt that data will play a central role in organizing and implementing these future projects. For anyone seeking a positive radical politics, data must be on the agenda.
National context matters. The United States has the power, and thus the responsibility to directly confront these global tech giants. Whereas countries like the UK, with valuable data assets such as the NHS and TfL, must play a leading role in initiating alternative data models.
But fundamentally, this is a global problem.
We need to reimagine possibilities for a world of data outside the existing narrative. The choice can no longer be between the totalizing control of the Chinese state, or America’s private profit platforms.
Perhaps what we need is a non-aligned movement for data – a progressive international movement. A coalition of states outside these hegemons, that reclaim the imagination from Bezos and Zuckerberg. Whatever happens, who owns and controls our data, will be one of the defining issues of our age.
This podcast was written and produced by Aaron White and Freddie Stuart