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Sun 2020-06-21 18:32

Michael Corn at Salon says that we’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate. That the issue of personal data collection, reuse, and sale has been manipulated and mislabeled by the Big Tech firms under the heading of "privacy".

All of the Big Tech platforms and websites have "privacy policies" that they provide links to that no one ever bothers to click because they know it will just be a 20-page wall of text in thick legalese. If you do take the time to read the "privacy" policy you'll find it says that they (the platform or website) collect all of this data about you from your smartphone, your voice assistant, your browsing history, etc., and their policy is to only give it to people and agencies who give them money. Your personal information will only be shared with a tight knit circle of thousands of paid advertisers, thus keeping it "private".

Except, that's not what "privacy" means. Corn rightly points out:

Privacy in this case means freedom to engage in conversation or thought without unwanted or unknown surveillance.

When it comes to taking measures to protect one's own privacy, Corn states this:

We are told to "resist" by abandoning digital services; ... Yet this very neoliberal notion of personal agency fails to acknowledge the role these services play in modern life. Being asked to resist only punishes those of us struggling to preserve our privacy.

So there's the rub. He wants the convenient, useful service but he also wants actual privacy in his use of the service. Okay, so then what does Corn propose?

The preservationist solution is simple and easy to visualize. Imagine a world where we didn't have to figure out how to reign in Facebook. Where creating a set of regulations wasn't something we had to do, but rather Facebook (or Google, or the furniture store down the street) had to figure out how to operate with the principle that personal information may not be bought or sold. That is, we preserve our privacy by simply forbidding our personal information from being used as a commodity.

That solution solves the first half of the problem in the phrase "surveillance capitalism". But what about the second half? The very business model of the online platforms is to collect personal information and trade it as a commodity. Take that away, and how do these companies survive? I'm sure Corn has a sound proposal for that also:

Would this mean the end of Facebook or Google? Of course not. These companies have legions of bright energetic people working for them and they'd quickly adapt.

They'll "quickly adapt" ... somehow. You can actually visualize the hand-wave in that sentence. Even before I read his bio I knew from that one statement that Michael Corn must be an academic with no experience in business. For those folks like Michael who have never run so much as a lemonade stand, let me explain how this works:

If you remove the "surveillance" from "surveillance capitalism" what you're left with is "capitalism" - trading payment for goods and services. The problem is that for years companies like Google and Facebook have been propagating the illusion that their services are "free". The people who use them have never paid money to do so, they just went to a website and signed up. But data centers, huge Internet pipes, corporate offices, and the "legions of bright energetic people" working in them all have associated financial costs. Someone, somewhere has to pay real money in order to have the infrastructure to provide those wonderful, convenient services that Michael accurately pointed out above - no one wants to give up.

The truth is, those services were never really free. Users "paid" Google and Facebook for their services by giving those companies personal information. In turn, Google and Facebook then collected that personal information, packaged it up, and sold it to other companies (advertisers) for real money. That money then paid for the infrastructure and the people who keep coming up with cool new services that everybody wants. And the circle is complete.

Everyday, more and more people are starting to wake up to the idea that this status quo is not to their advantage and like Michael Corn, are saying "hey, these companies should stop abusing my personal information." And from a moral perspective, they are right. But that's only half of the equation. If you don't want to give up your personal information but you still want the services those companies provide, then someone has to pay actual money.

If it won't be advertisers who pay, then it will be the users who pay - in the form of subscription fees. What people should be demanding is not that Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al stop trading in personal information and somehow figure out how to run their businesses without it. Users of those services should be demanding that the companies behind them provide a paid subscription option that allows use of the services without advertising, and without data collection. In point of fact, Google already offers such a service but it's aimed at businesses rather than consumers. There is no reason Google couldn't offer the same paid no-ads option for personal accounts. There's no reason Facebook couldn't do the same.

If users of online platforms want to end the practice of "surveillance capitalism", it's not enough to simply demand an end to data collection. You have to offer those companies a better, more honest business model by demonstrating that you're willing to engage in a "direct capitalism" alternative and pay for the goods and services you receive.

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