Surveillance Capitalism

From P2P Foundation
Jump to: navigation, search


Shoshana Zuboff:

"Google is ground zero for a wholly new subspecies of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behavior. This is a new surveillance capitalism that is unimaginable outside the inscrutable high velocity circuits of Google’s digital universe, whose signature feature is the Internet and its successors. While the world is riveted by the showdown between Apple and the FBI, the real truth is that the surveillance capabilities being developed by surveillance capitalists are the envy of every state security agency." (


Idle Words [1]:

"The economic basis of the Internet is surveillance. Every interaction with a computing device leaves a data trail, and whole industries exist to consume this data. Unlike dystopian visions from the past, this surveillance is not just being conducted by governments or faceless corporations. Instead, it’s the work of a small number of sympathetic tech companies with likable founders, whose real dream is to build robots and Mars rockets and do cool things that make the world better. Surveillance just pays the bills.

It is a striking fact that mass surveillance has been driven almost entirely by private industry. While the Snowden revelations in 2012 made people anxious about government monitoring, that anxiety never seemed to carry over to the much more intrusive surveillance being conducted by the commercial Internet. Anyone who owns a smartphone carries a tracking device that knows (with great accuracy) where you’ve been, who you last spoke to and when, contains potentially decades-long archives of your private communications, a list of your closest contacts, your personal photos, and other very intimate information.

Internet providers collect (and can sell) your aggregated browsing data to anyone they want. A wave of connected devices for the home is competing to bring internet surveillance into the most private spaces. Enormous ingenuity goes into tracking people across multiple devices, and circumventing any attempts to hide from the tracking.

With the exception of China (which has its own ecology), the information these sites collect on users is stored permanently and with almost no legal controls by a small set of companies headquartered in the United States.

Two companies in particular dominate the world of online advertising and publishing, the economic engines of the surveillance economy.

Google, valued at $560 billion, is the world’s de facto email server, and occupies a dominant position in almost every area of online life. It’s unremarkable for a user to connect to the Internet on a Google phone using Google hardware, talking to Google servers via a Google browser, while blocking ads served over a Google ad network on sites that track visitors with Google analytics. This combination of search history, analytics and ad tracking gives the company unrivaled visibility into users’ browsing history. Through initiatives like AMP (advanced mobile pages), the company is attempting to extend its reach so that it becomes a proxy server for much of online publishing.

Facebook, valued at $400 billion, has close to two billion users and is aggressively seeking its next billion. It is the world’s largest photo storage service, and owns the world’s largest messaging service, WhatsApp. For many communities, Facebook is the tool of choice for political outreach and organizing, event planning, fundraising and communication. It is the primary source of news for a sizable fraction of Americans, and through its feed algorithm (which determines who sees what) has an unparalleled degree of editorial control over what that news looks like.

Together, these companies control some 65% of the online ad market, which in 2015 was estimated at $60B. Of that, half went to Google and $8B to Facebook. Facebook, the smaller player, is more aggressive in the move to new ad and content formats, particularly video and virtual reality.

These companies exemplify the centralized, feudal Internet of 2017. While the protocols that comprise the Internet remain open and free, in practice a few large American companies dominate every aspect of online life. Google controls search and email, AWS controls cloud hosting, Apple and Google have a duopoly in mobile phone operating systems. Facebook is the one social network.

There is more competition and variety among telecommunications providers and gas stations than there is among the Internet giants." (

A Toolkit For Authoritarians

Surveillance capitalism offers exceptionally subtle levers of social control. Apart from the obvious chilling effect on political expression when everything you say is permanently recorded, there is the chilling effect of your own peer group, and the lingering doubt that anything you say privately can ever truly stay private.

We have no way of safeguarding the large amounts of data we collect in the long term, so a real worry for anyone is that their private lives will be publicized. Throughout the election, private communications by low-level staffers were leaked and used as a political weapon. The message was very clear: stay out of politics.

Social media also proved useful at shifting attention away from journalists who were asking uncomfortable questions.

Orwell imagined a world in which the state could shamelessly rewrite the past. The Internet has taught us that people are happy to do this work themselves, provided they have their peer group with them, and a common enemy to unite against. They will happily construct alternative realities for themselves, and adjust them as necessary to fit the changing facts.

Finally, surveillance capitalism makes it harder to organize effective long-term dissent. In an setting where attention is convertible into money, social media will always reward drama, dissent, conflict, iconoclasm and strife. There will be no comparable rewards for cooperation, de-escalation, consensus-building, or compromise, qualities that are essential for the slow work of building a movement. People who should be looking past their differences will instead spend their time on purity tests and trying to outflank one another in a race to the fringes.

Can we fix it?

Institutions can be destroyed quickly; they take a long time to build.

A lot of what we call ‘disruption’ in the tech industry has just been killing flawed but established institutions, and mining them for parts. When we do this, we make a dangerous assumption about our ability to undo our own bad decisions, or the time span required to build institutions that match the needs of new realities.

Right now, a small caste of programmers is in charge of the surveillance economy, and has broad latitude to change it. But this situation will not last for long. The kinds of black-box machine learning that have been so successful in the age of mass surveillance are going to become commoditized and will no longer require skilled artisans to deploy.

Moreover, powerful people have noted and benefited from the special power of social media in the political arena. They will not sit by and let programmers dismantle useful tools for influence and social control. It doesn’t matter that the tech industry considers itself apolitical and rationalist. Powerful people did not get to be that way by voluntarily ceding power.

The window of time in which the tech industry can still act is brief: while tech workers retain relatively high influence in their companies, and before powerful political interests have put down roots in the tech industry.

I’ve divided the changes I think we need into two groups, based on how they affect existing business models. The short-term solutions mitigate some of the harm of the surveillance economy without requiring major reform. The long-term changes are equally necessary, but will threaten established business models.

We can compare this to defusing a bomb. The immediate task is to disconnect the wires and the ticking timer; the longer-term task is to remove the pile of explosives, or render them inert. Removing the timer is urgent and necessary, but if we leave the explosives in place, we have not addressed the problem." (