The effect of social media and big tech on our society
In an article entitled “Big Tech’s Big Defector” in the current (12-2-19) issue of the New Yorker magazine, Brian Barth reviews Roger McNamee’s 2019 book Zucked, which criticizes social media and the corporations (Facebook and Google) that support it (note that Facebook includes Instagram and Google includes YouTube), as well as merchandisers (especially Amazon) that track our every digital movement.
A corporate investor, McNamee started cashing in on the personal-computer revolution in the early ‘80s, adding investments in Amazon in the ‘90s, and Facebook in 2009 and 2010. Initially seeing the tech industry as “an experiment in creative and profitable problem-solving,” he started questioning its ethics in 2012. “‘These guys all wanted to be monopolists,’ he said recently. ‘They all want to be billionaires.’ McNamee was still convinced that Facebook was different, but in February 2016, shortly after he retired from full-time investing, he noticed posts that purported to support Bernie Sanders but seemed fishy. That spring, the social-media-fueled vitriol of the Brexit campaign seemed like further proof that Facebook was being exploited to sow division among voters – and that company executives had turned a blind eye. The more McNamee listened to Silicon Valley critics, the more alarmed he became: he learned that Facebook allowed facial-recognition software to identify users without their consent, and let advertisers discriminate against viewers. (Real-estate companies, for example, could exclude people of certain races from seeing their ads. Ten days before the presidential election, McNamee sent an e-mail to Zuckerberg, saying, ‘Facebook is enabling people to do harm. It has the power to stop the harm. What it currently lacks is an incentive to do so.’ Zuckerberg assured McNamee that Facebook was working to address the issues he’d raised, and dispatched a Facebook executive, Dan Rose, to talk to him. Rose told McNamee that Facebook was a platform, not a publisher, and couldn’t control all user behavior. This dismissiveness rattled McNamee. ‘These were my friends. I wanted to give them a chance to do the right thing. I wasn’t expecting them to go, “Oh, my God, stop everything,” but I did expect them to take it seriously. It was obvious they thought it was just a P.R. problem.’ He hasn’t spoken to Zuckerberg (who declined to comment for this article) since, and now refers to him as an ‘authoritarian.’
As Russian election interference became increasingly apparent, McNamee published a series of op-eds – in the Guardian, USA Today, Time, and elsewhere – arguing that the social-media business model thrived on divisive rhetoric: the more extreme the content, the more users shared it, and the more the algorithms amplified it, the more ad revenue was generated. As lawmakers prepared for hearings about Russian meddling in the fall of 2017, McNamee put together a curriculum for them, which he jokingly called ‘Internet Platforms 101.’ Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, had been focused on foreign manipulation of social media, but, in a meeting, McNamee urged him to consider a broader problem – how the platforms were sowing discord among Americans. ‘Roger was really ahead of the curve,’ Schiff said, ‘and time has borne out his warnings.’
McNamee’s zeal for diagnosing problems soon evolved into a mission to devise a solution. He argued that piecemeal regulation would never get to the root of the problem: mining users’ private data for profit. In February 2019, he published Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, part memoir, part manifesto. He then embarked on a book tour that’s turned into an ongoing public-shaming campaign.
When interviewed, McNamee rattled off a frighteningly long list of things he believes have been ‘Zucked’: ‘your vote,’ ‘your rights,’ ‘your privacy,’ ‘your life,’ ‘everything.’ So far, the public is less alarmed. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that half of Americans think the tech industry is having a positive impact on society. (This view is on the decline, however: in 2015, seven in ten thought so.) Earlier this year, Google and Amazon came in second and third in a survey of millennials’ favorite brands. In general, people are more concerned about the behavior of banks and pharmaceutical companies, and most Americans have yet to meaningfully change their habits as tech consumers.
Using digital profiles to predict and influence our behavior is at the heart of Google’s and Facebook’s business models. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, published earlier this year, Shoshana Zuboff, an emerita professor at Harvard Business School, warns of a ‘rogue mutation of capitalism,’ in which tech behemoths surveil humans, and eventually control them. McNamee speaks often about surveillance capitalism, and credits Zuboff with informing his views and bringing academic clout to the cause of Silicon Valley reform.
McNamee offers himself as a case study in how to be Google-free. He uses DuckDuckGo, a search engine that presents itself as a privacy-oriented alternative to Google, and has largely renounced Gmail, Maps, Docs, and the company’s other apps. He argues that Facebook should be used for staying in touch with friends and family rather than for political debates, which the platform alchemizes into screaming matches. ‘Outrage and fear are what drive their business model, so don’t engage with it,’ he told me. ‘I was as addicted as anybody, but we have the power to withdraw our attention.’ His life is made easier by the fact that he has relatively few complaints about Apple, which he praises for taking steps to protect user privacy. Since 2017, the company’s Safari browser has blocked third-party cookies, one ubiquitous tool for gleaning personal data. And its new Apple Card, unlike many other credit cards, including American Express and Mastercard, doesn’t share transaction histories with third parties. On the other hand, researchers have found that iPhones send a steady stream of personal data to third parties, much as the Android phones McNamee decries do. The company is also a pioneer in Bluetooth beacons, tiny devices used by retailers which glean data from phones as people move about in public spaces.
The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal is the quintessential example of how people can be turned into puppets. By collecting data from Facebook without user consent, the company was able to identify micro-populations of voters, then serve up customized ads encouraging them to vote for Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica obtained user data through duplicitous means, but similar data sets are widely and legally available; micro-targeting is commonplace on nearly all political campaigns. One of the most popular answers to this is that antitrust law should be used to take on Big Tech’s power. Elizabeth Warren, who’s met with McNamee and called him ‘one of the clearest voices’ on tech reform, has made the breakup of tech giants a central part of her campaign. Bernie Sanders has also pledged to press the antitrust issue if elected; Joe Biden has said that he’ll investigate it. In March, McNamee was invited to give a lecture at the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. In the following months, the D.O.J. and the F.T.C., along with various state legislatures and congressional committees, announced antitrust investigations aimed at Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple.
Several data-privacy bills circulating in Congress draw inspiration from California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which goes into effect on January 1st, and from Europe’s recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation. Such laws expand consumers’ control over their data and give them new legal tools for holding companies accountable. Many privacy advocates, including McNamee, argue that they’re critically flawed, however. Under G.D.P.R. rules, companies must ask users to opt in before their data can be processed by third parties, but, as soon as consumers consent, it’s more or less back to business as usual. And the rules are relatively loose when it comes to metadata. Even if the contents of a phone call are protected, the time of the call or the parties involved might not be. This is more revealing than it seems: as a memo by the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, a tech giant that doesn’t know your name might still ‘know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, then called an abortion clinic’s number.’
McNamee believes antitrust action will be effective only after comprehensive privacy reforms are enacted – otherwise, it’ll simply create smaller companies that behave in the same ways the big ones do now. ‘I want to prevent the data from getting into the system in the first place,’ he told me. The reform that would really have teeth, he says, is one that would ‘ban all third-party commerce in private information – financial information, location information, health information, browser history, and scanning of e-mail.’ Companies would be allowed to collect data needed for their services, but nothing else: a wellness app could store your height or weight but not the location of your gym – and none of this information could be shared with Facebook. The idea, McNamee explained, is that you could log a workout without then being bombarded by ads for nearby Zumba classes. Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, has pointed out that few of the current proposed policies would have any effect on whether a company can collect private data, only on how it can be used. Under McNamee’s plan, most of Google’s and Facebook’s revenues would disappear overnight, since nearly 90% of both companies’ money comes from ads. (Tech companies that don’t depend on targeted-ad revenue would remain relatively unaffected.)”
Barth concludes that the tech-reform movement can be hard to take seriously when some of its most prominent activists are also some of the most prominent tech-company shareholders,” and notes that “McNamee ends his talks by saying that the solution will be the ‘biggest business opportunity’ ever.”
In an 11-28-19 Guardian article entitled “There’s only one way to take on big tech: by reining in big money and big state,” Evgeny Morozov says that “the Warren-style critique of big tech rests on a powerful myth of domestic politics gone wrong.” He adds that “it’s easy to mistake Warren’s populist stance – let’s just break up the tech giants! – for some kind of leftism; but all it really is is a repetition of the (neo)liberal creed that well-policed, competitive markets yield prosperity. A Warren-style critique presents the rise of big tech as a series of policy errors by distracted or corrupt technocratic regulators, rather than the result of careful policy planning by Washington elites keen to use every tool possible to consolidate America’s global power. Focused almost entirely on domestic affairs, the Warren-style account rarely situates big tech alongside big money – Saudi Arabia, SoftBank and JP Morgan – and the big state – the Pentagon, with its massive contracting orders, and the NSA, with its massive spying apparatus. Positioned properly inside this troika, big tech emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of global financialized and militarized capitalism.
Not surprisingly, Warren’s account remains blind to the real reason American big tech isn’t smaller: big money and the big state need it to remain big — the former to make sure Wall Street can recoup its loss-making investments, the latter to ensure that America’s defense and intelligence needs are met swiftly, efficiently, and on the cheap. Positioned properly inside this troika, big tech emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of global financialized and militarized capitalism. Making big tech smaller, thus, can only be accomplished by trying to rein in the powers of Wall Street and the Pentagon and accepting that America should play a humble role in the global order. None of this is likely to happen, especially given American anxieties about China’s global ascent in all three dimensions – technology, finance, and military might. Smaller tech would mean America losing its ability to project its power geopolitically; and the odds that the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley – let alone the ‘America first’ Trump administration – would agree to this are nil. They’ll probably remain nil even if someone like Warren – whose foreign policy views are rather conventional, even by Washington standards – gets elected.
The powers of the nefarious troika of the big tech, big money, and big state could – and should be – contested. But this has to be done directly – by explicitly invoking and contesting the links between the financial, military, and technology dimensions of US power – and not indirectly, by discussing tendencies towards monopolization in digital capitalism. The first approach lends itself to a properly progressive political agenda; the second only to the utopian expectations that a new generation of technocrats might resolve some of the contradictions of global capitalism. In the absence of such a program, leftists should ditch the ‘big tech vs small tech’ dichotomy and speak of corporate vs non-corporate tech instead. The ownership – not just of companies but also of sensors, networks, data and services – is more important than the size of the key players. This doesn’t mean we should follow the likes of Warren in treating them as utilities, however; to do so would be to impose a ban on the kind of institutional imagination that the rise of digital technologies should have provoked – but still hasn’t – on the left.
The utilities model is problematic for many reasons, the chief of which is that data – the intimate residue of our intellectual, social and political life – unlike water, gas, and electricity, is suffused with meaning, lending itself to a multiplicity of interpretations and action plans. How this total ensemble of meanings and actions get assembled, by whom, and with what rationale isn’t a question that can be answered with any certainty in advance. The data ensemble can, as it does now, empower the advertising industry, feed virtual disinformation campaigns, and help banks extend more loans – i.e., ensure that the wheels of capitalism roll smoothly. It could also seed non-market behaviors grounded in solidarity and mutual respect, doing for the knowledge society what the welfare state once did for industrial society: create durable foundations for human flourishing. By shoving solutions to the problem of big tech into the institutional straitjacket of the utilities model, we’re giving up the opportunity to create a radically new institutional landscape – one which will de-commodify everyday life the same way the welfare state de-commodified working life almost a century earlier. This genuinely leftwing agenda doesn’t provide a simplistic, clean, but ultimately utopian answer along the lines of ‘small’ or ‘humane’ tech. But in calling out big tech as a function of American corporate power it at least gets the diagnosis right.”