Privacy advocates tried to explain that persuasion was just the tip of the iceberg. Commercial databases were juicy targets for spies and identity thieves, to say nothing of blackmail for people whose data-trails revealed socially risky sexual practices, religious beliefs, or political views.
Now we’re living through the techlash, and finally people are coming back to the privacy advocates, saying we were right all along; given enough surveillance, companies can sell us anything: Brexit, Trump, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and successful election bids for absolute bastards like Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orban.
It’s great that the privacy-matters message is finally reaching a wider audience, and it’s exciting to think that we’re approaching a tipping point for indifference to privacy and surveillance.
But while the acknowledgment of the problem of Big Tech is most welcome, I am worried that the diagnosis is wrong.
The problem is that we’re confusing automated persuasion with automated targeting. Laughable lies about Brexit, Mexican rapists, and creeping Sharia law didn’t convince otherwise sensible people that up was down and the sky was green.
Rather, the sophisticated targeting systems available through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other Big Tech ad platforms made it easy to find the racist, xenophobic, fearful, angry people who wanted to believe that foreigners were destroying their country while being bankrolled by George Soros.
What will the U.S. do about Facebook and Google?
Some people would like to see the companies broken up. They propose surgical cuts: Facebook must relinquish WhatsApp and Instagram, while parent company Alphabet could spin off feeder products from advertising-funded search.
On what grounds? We know that bigness per se is no crime. Are these companies “essential facilities” that left fewer, more expensive options for consumers?
The problem is that many of these companies’ products cost us nothing, at least in terms of dollars. It doesn’t look like Facebook or Google have been lowering product quality, either. In general, there’s a lot of competition when it comes to social media platforms and search, even if people choose not to use them very much.
In a world not that distant from 1984’s dystopia, social companies are rushing to install algorithmic moderation that would monitor our every word and delete any nonconforming views before we have the chance to share them. More importantly, Facebook recently noted the importance of it being able to log every violation of its thought rules and archiving a copy of the offending speech.
As censorship moves from a post facto review process towards active deletion, speech that social platforms disagree with will no longer even have brief moments of circulation, but instead will be prevented from ever seeing the light of day in the first place.
As Facebook reminded us this past March, that can include silencing debate about its business practices, including calls for regulation or greater data privacy laws.
Eventually these rules won’t apply only to public posts but instead will be used to censor our private phone calls and in-person conversations.
Please read the full article. Then consider. Think deeply.