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Europe Is Saving Democracy From Big Tech, Says the Author of Surveillance Capitalism

11 minute read
Karl Vick is an editor at large at TIME. He has also served as TIME's Jerusalem bureau chief. He has reported from 60 countries and in 2001 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of the spread of AIDS in Africa.

When Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism was published in 2019, public unease with the power of Big Tech found its Rosetta Stone, an opus that simultaneously described, confirmed and named the transformation of democracy’s public spaces into profit-making realms controlled by digital mega-corporations. Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, spoke to TIME at length a few days after Twitter announced its sale to Elon Musk, and the European Union approved a landmark law intended to reign in Big Tech. This interview has been edited for clarity:

TIME: In the space of a two days this month, the richest man in the world bought Twitter and the European Union approved the most significant effort to regulate Big Tech to date, the Digital Services Act. Where do you see things?

Zuboff: These are the bookends of past and future that define our situation today. More than two decades ago American lawmakers turned over the new networked information spaces of our digital age to private companies. Mr. Musk is the beneficiary of this misguided past. It means that we have no laws to prevent one person from owning a significant chunk of our information space and doing whatever he chooses. The consequence is that the whole world is forced to obsess over one individual: “What will Mr. Musk do?” We have become painfully aware that the way these information spaces are engineered, owned and operated has a material effect on our lives, our societies, and on the viability of our democracies.

Thanks to the historic developments in the E.U., that old story is no longer the whole story. The new legislation known as the Digital Services Act (DSA) is the second bookend and it points us toward a different future. Mr. Musk no longer faces a free ride in a lawless space. The DSA leads a democratic resurgence that challenges the tech giants’ vision for our future. The democratic rule of law has just landed in our digital information space , and not a moment too soon. While the immediate effects are in the E.U., there are seismic implications for the rest of the world. Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market put the word out to Mr. Musk, “Elon there are rules now.”

Why has the internet been basically lawless?

Back in the mid 1990’s at the dawn of the world wide web, when less than 20% of the world’s information was digitally stored, the liberal democracies failed to construct a coherent political vision of a digital century that would advance democratic values, principles, and governance. By 1997, Clinton and Gore published the first authoritative policy framework for “Global Electronic Commerce.” “The private sector should lead,” they wrote. Existing laws and regulations that might hinder electronic commerce were to be—and this is a quote—“reviewed and revised or eliminated.”

There was a feeling of great optimism at the time, the digital utopianism of the 90s.

Yes, it was the market utopia of the ‘90s, which was also a deeply anti-democratic radical vision. Our lawmakers believed that democracy was inferior to private companies. They literally abdicated responsibility for every key policy issue in the new digital spaces, including privacy and consumer protections.

This void was left, and rapidly filled by the little internet companies that were getting started in the late 90s and early 2000s, and their new economic logic of surveillance capitalism: After the dot.com bust, they had to find a way to monetize. It wasn’t obvious. Google was the first one to crack the code. And that code was really something. Because what that code said was that, hey, everything can be turned into data. Your breakfast, your anger, the stoop of your shoulders, where you go, what you do, what you say.

Google co-founder Larry Page was asked to in 2001, “What is Google’s business?” His answer was “personal information.” He saw that the entirety of human life would be searchable and indexable. Google created a search engine for users to search the world, but its real value was in enabling Google to search its users. It set into motion the wholesale destruction of privacy that is the hallmark of our era.

We’re all living in a perpetual monsoon. We’re soaking wet, chattering and shivering. No place to get out of the rain. But our government will not allow the sale of umbrellas.

And other companies followed Google’s lead?

Yes. In the absence of law, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were free to assert personal authority over the organization and presentation of the world of information. Mark Zuckerberg asserted personal authority over social communications on a global scale. This is intolerable. In a democracy, it simply creates un-survivable conditions.

Citizens have been turned into bystanders. Every day when you read the news, it’s all about, Please Mr. Zuckerberg, please do something to make things better. Please, Mr. Dorsey—Jack Dorsey, founder and occasional leader of Twitter. Please, Mr. Dorsey, please make life bearable for us. Don’t destroy our society! Don’t destroy our democracy! Don’t make every single hour of every day, so stressful.

We are bystanders begging these once-young men who have access to knowledge about people and society that has never before existed. A Facebook document that came out around 2018 described Facebook’s artificial intelligence, how all the data flows get computed into predictions. It was ingesting trillions of data points every day to produce 6 million behavioral predictions every second.

This is how the power of divinity was imagined, this kind of omniscience. But now we’re talking about operations essentially controlled by a few guys. And Mr. Musk is looking on at this and sees a company a little bit on the ropes, and all he has to do is buy the company as his price of admission to this divine clique, this clique of the gods.

So he, too, can work the keyboard and make things better or worse for everyone, as he sees fit.

Does it matter that Musk wants to take the company private?

By taking Twitter private, Mr. Musk avoids any constraints imposed by routine corporate governance. So Mr. Musk will have absolute power, and that puts him next in line for absolute corruption. Sadly we already see Mr. Musk using his new position to post menacing tweets that seem calculated to bully civil society into silence, while calling out the trolls and harassers to target these organizations, their leaders, members, boards, and so on. We are also learning more about Mr. Musk’s investors, which include a range of libertarian billionaires as well as investment firms. Among these are Saudi Prince Alwaleed, and Qatar Holding LLC, owned by the State of Qatar’s Investment Authority. Both investors are tied to regimes known for their censorship and repression of journalists.

TIME’s 2021 Person of the Year story on Musk observed that he was a tech titan who dealt less with data than with physical things: space ships and electric cars.

In just about every instance today, surveillance capitalism is reordering sectors and industries so that increasingly, products and services are just loss leaders for the data that can be extracted as people engage with the product or service.

So: I don’t care about selling you a thermostat for your bedroom, I care about the data that’s going to stream through the thermostat. Or the dishwasher or the television—or the car, for God’s sake. In the auto industry, they now write about cars as mobile surveillance platforms. Our homes have become surveillance platforms.

And surveillance capitalism treats information as a bulk commodity, like tons of wheat or barrels of oil. Nothing to do with the meaning of the information–whether it is factual or corrupt. Plowing trillions of data points through the computers every day, to produce 6 million predictions per second, there is no capacity to compute meaning, fact or truth. In fact, academic researchers have found that corrupt information—which is to say, inflammatory information, bizarre, fringe, crazy content— draws more “engagement,” and therefore more opportunities for further data extraction. In other words, information integrity is actually bad for business. Corrupt information is good for business, in this topsy turvy world that we have allowed to be created.

So you see real hope in the EU’s move?

The Data Services Act is democracy beginning to take back the void. What the corporations have done—the arrogance, the audacity; and the helplessness that we felt, the resignation—all of that is now part of the past. The story is moving on. We now understand that this is not about technological determinism. This is a story about power. And democracy is reclaiming the power.

There’s a wonderful line from Hanna Arendt in her discussion of “lying in politics.” She says, “Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute.” But surveillance capitalism creates abnormal circumstances. Secrecy was the critical factor that enabled the internet startups of 20 years ago to create today’s global institutional order. They extract our data through hidden mechanisms, ergo ‘surveillance.’ The operations through which those data move are secret, indecipherable. There is no transparency and therefore no standard of reality against which we can judge information integrity.

The Digital Services Act enforces transparency. It allows, for the first time, independent auditors and researchers to force open these black boxes—data extraction, the algorithmic targeting that that favors corrupt information because it creates more opportunity for data extraction—all these kinds of things which have been invisible.

The DSA will make it possible for reality to defeat lies. It asserts that the quality of information matters. Facts and truth matter. Disinformation is not information. De-factualization is not normal discourse. No society can survive when its networked information spaces are owned and operated by an economic regime in which corrupt information is good for business.

All of this will be possible because the law calls for real institution building—new capabilities for oversight, auditing, and enforcement, with data scientists, engineers, and auditors working for democracy instead of for the tech companies. And the largest tech companies are obligated to cover most of the cost of these new activities.

And by eliminating tech’s free pass on illegal content, the DSA finally brings down the curtain on the antidemocratic myth of “cyberspace,” described by former Google-Alphabet chief Eric Schmidt as “the world’s largest ungoverned space,” a magical zone “not truly bound by terrestrial laws.” With the DSA, the European Union declares that digital spaces are society’s spaces, that the digital must live in democracy’s house, not as an adversary, but as a joyful productive family member. Only in this way will knowledge, the true fruit of the digital age, finally be returned to the people to meet the challenges we face as families, as communities, and as creatures of an ailing planet. This is how we trigger the innovation that enriches the many, not just the few.

Is Big Tech too powerful to be regulated by Capitol Hill?

Of course not… another myth born of PR messaging and tech lobbyists. Think of all the industries that are successfully regulated. Think of how less than one hundred years ago we codified new rights and laws for workers and consumers, wresting absolute power from the industrial giants. Since 2018, the American public has experienced a widespread rupture of faith with big tech and surveillance capitalism. The survey research really is overwhelmingly negative. The public is demanding action, and history suggests that this kind of public shift signals a new era of law and policy. Lawmakers move when they really feel the public at their backs. And 94% of Americans say they’re concerned about privacy, 93% about disinformation and its effects on society. Seven in ten Americans say tech companies have too much power.

You mention “regulation.” In my view we have passed the point when regulation is an option. There is no point regulating something that is fundamentally illegitimate and should be equally unlawful. Today the challenge is reinvention. We should return to the most basic questions and ask ourselves, what does a democratic digital future require? That’s the new starting point.

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