Although we have only just begun to understand the harms caused by internet platforms to public health, privacy and competition, we will soon be confronting an even more fundamental threat from Big Tech. At a time when the institutions of liberal democracy are already weak, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are mounting a challenge to democratically elected governments by offering their own services as an alternative.
This represents a significant change from the past.
As recently as 20 years ago, the United States’s technology companies had little interaction with the federal government beyond paying taxes.
Engineers created products that empowered customers, and the government cheered them on.
But after the terror attacks of September 11 2001, the country’s attitude toward surveillance changed. The US intelligence community collaborated with leading digital platforms — starting with Google — to gather vast stores of personal data that might be used so as to prevent future attacks.
Moreover, beginning in 2008, Google, Facebook and others became indispensable tools for politicians. The tech industry’s cozy relationship with President Barack Obama’s administration protected it from scrutiny while it perfected what Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School calls “surveillance capitalism”.
Whereas industrial capitalism deploys technology to manipulate the environment, surveillance capitalism manipulates people’s behaviour. Its practitioners convert human experience into data, create digital voodoo dolls (dossiers) representing each individual, and then use those virtual representations to fashion and sell behavioural-prediction products.
These products have transformed marketing and advertising by supplementing demographic targeting with specific predictions for every potential customer. The leading surveillance capitalists — Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft — also use the data they collect to manipulate individual search results, limiting the choices available to consumers and increasing the likelihood that they will behave as predicted. As Zuboff argues, surveillance capitalism is a threat to a person’s autonomy and the viability of open societies.
Moving fast …
The first evidence that internet platforms could have a real-world effect on countries — not just individuals — came in 2016, when online disinformation campaigns featured prominently in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. Since then, internet platforms have enabled election interference in many other countries and unwittingly played a role in genocide in Myanmar, mass murders in the US and Europe, and measles outbreaks in countries where the disease had previously been eliminated. They are now regularly used to spread disinformation, foment violent extremism and polarise electorates.
I do not believe that internet platforms intended to enable these harms. But their business models, algorithms and internal cultures made such harms inevitable. As citizens, we all need to acknowledge that internet platforms now have as much or more of an effect on our lives than our governments do.
When Facebook prohibits images of breastfeeding, its users cannot appeal the decision, even if they live in a country with constitutional protections for speech. And when it changes its policies to permit false advertising in political campaigns, it is essentially inviting further attacks on our elections — and thus on democracy itself.
Worse, open societies have yet to get a hold on the first wave of harm unleashed by the internet platforms. The most thoughtful initiatives to date — the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and California’s Consumer Privacy Act — address only a subset of the problem. Policymakers are still in the early stages of understanding how surveillance capitalism works. There is not even a consensus that this new economic model poses a threat, much less a plan to neutralise its harmful effects.
Meanwhile, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have already moved on to the next stage. Having perfected surveillance capitalism, they are in a position to launch initiatives designed to displace services traditionally provided by government. They are not the first companies to do this, but their ambitions and the means at their disposal far exceed those of other corporate privateers, such as the for-profit prison industry.
Each leading platform company is driven by a clear goal. Some are explicit, as with Google’s mission to “organise the world’s information” and Facebook’s desire to bring the world together on a single network. Others can be inferred from behaviour: Amazon clearly wants to be the backbone of the economy and Microsoft the technology partner for businesses and governments.
In each case, the unstated objective is control. Not satisfied with the benefits of surveillance capitalism, which today are constrained by the size of the market for advertising, the platform firms are moving aggressively — and defiantly, in some cases — into new markets.
… and breaking things
For example, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, offers to take over local government services in exchange for control of public data and decision-making power. Whether by design or by accident, this business model could gradually displace personal choice and replace local-level democracy with algorithms.
Likewise, with the planned launch of its cryptocurrency Libra, Facebook is trying to compete with reserve currencies such as the dollar and the euro. Although Libra initially had the support of many leading financial-services firms, its unveiling has triggered a global backlash, and many of those partners have dropped out.
But regardless of what happens with Libra, Facebook will continue to play an outsize role in undermining democracy. Its open willingness to facilitate the dissemination of known falsehoods, along with its chief executive’s criticism of a leading Democratic presidential candidate (Elizabeth Warren), suggests that the company is not afraid to put its own interests before those of the country.
For its part, Amazon has moved aggressively into government contracting, providing a range of information services to federal and local agencies. It has offered facial recognition products to law enforcement agencies such as immigrations and customs enforcement, even though the software suffers from implicit bias against people of colour.
Amazon is also using its Ring line of smart doorbells to broker co-operation agreements with local police departments. When homeowners provide prior approval, law-enforcement officials can use Ring video feeds without a warrant. Civil liberties advocates and experts are understandably concerned that when combined with facial recognition technology, Ring doorbell networks will allow for new, potentially unconstitutional forms of surveillance. Journalists have also discovered that Amazon’s Ring deals give the company undue leverage over how law enforcement agencies communicate with the public.
Microsoft’s new initiatives are less brazen, but not necessarily less problematic. For example, its work on artificial intelligence includes applications that would automate policing. As with facial recognition, early artificial intelligence-based policing apps are implicitly biased. Regardless of whether this is a result of poor engineering or customer preferences, the fact is that no one has yet found a solution to the problem. Algorithmic bias has been found across a broad range of applications, such as in software that reviews CVs and mortgage applications.
Time is running out
Over the past two decades, the leading internet platforms have taken advantage of deregulation and legal loopholes to build globe-spanning businesses and amass enormous wealth. Success has bred arrogance, particularly at Facebook and Google, both of which have defied policymakers in contexts where other corporations have not.
Both companies initially refused to send their chief executives to the first congressional hearings on election interference. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has consistently avoided testifying before parliamentary committees in Canada and the UK, two of Facebook’s largest markets. When Facebook and Google executives have appeared before oversight bodies, they have been cagey and evasive.
These companies now dominate our lives, often in ways that we do not even realise. They are unelected and unaccountable, and they are replacing self-determination and democratic decision-making with algorithmic processes. Open societies cannot permit corporations to behave this way. As citizens, we must demand that our governments bring them to heel while they still have the power to do so. — © Project Syndicate
Roger McNamee is a co-founder of Elevation Partners and an early investor in Facebook, Google and Amazon