Are we stuck with Surveillance Capitalism?
I hope not.
But what are realistic alternatives? Alternatives that keep the amazing wonders that are
consumer technologies in 2020, but don’t invade our privacy, don’t spread misinformation, give us back
a measure of control over our electronic lives, don’t set us up for manipulation and
help rather than hurt our mental health?
Here are three scenarios how we could get
Scenario 1: Regulation Bites
Building on the success of GDPR
and buoyed by a growing data sovereignty movement
supported by the political right and left, the European Union intensifies regulating
cyberspace, and in short order:
- disallows all businesses to move any personal information pertaining to its residents
to data centers outside of the European Union;
- broadly disallows user tracking except for very narrow circumstances; in particular,
cross-site and cross-app user tracking becomes prohibited; advertising networks cannot
target audiences smaller than 100,000 members any more;
- requires all social and communications apps to implement full data portability
(including loss-less transmission to a new provider) similar to phone number portability.
The dominant, American social networking giants focus their efforts in the courts to roll
back these regulations, but in the meantime, nimble European upstarts simply copy the feature
sets of the dominant platforms and implement them consistent with European regulations.
Local politicians mention these apps at every opportunity.
By marketing their products through schools, privacy-conscious German parents switch over
an entire new generation of users to the European apps, and when e-government initiatives
enable citizens to much more easily and securely interact with governments through the new apps,
the network effect starts hurting instead of favoring the American surveillance platforms.
As integration has become easy, a European startup figures out how to game-ify fact checking on this
new open platform, and on-line misinformation drops rapidly. This increases user engagement
and user confidence, and few people ever want to go back to the old apps.
Other countries outside the EU concerned about data sovereignty have been watching
carefully and quickly follow the European model, through regulation and targeted industrial
policy. Facebook and friends are playing catch-up and are forced to play by the new rules
to keep at least some of their user base in those countries.
And when they started to market their apps internationally, even large swathes of the
American population moved over, because they don’t want to be surveilled either.
Scenario 2: A Global Disinvestment Campaign Leads to a Vibrant Good Technology Market
With the slogan “Facebook is just as bad as burning oil”, digital rights activists
have partnered with veterans of the
against South African apartheid, tobacco and fossil fuels for an international
public relations campaign targeting investment and retirement funds that invest in
companies monetizing surveillance.
Being reminded of the impact of previous disinvestment campaigns and sensing a business
opportunity, fund managers globally are rapidly rolling out new niche funds that promise
to only invest in companies that use personal data responsibly. Their initial target markets
are minorities and parents saving for retirement who are concerned about their kids' safety
when using technology.
Upstart VCs jump on the opportunity that
this new, focused capital represents and funnel it via special-purpose “Good Tech Only” venture
funds to eager entrepreneurs world-wide to build next-generation social networking,
commerce and virtual/augmented reality companies, without fear that VCs will pressure them
to monetize customer data anyway when the company hits a difficult patch.
Having made a clean break from the surveillance business model, these upstarts are able
to innovate rapidly both on business model and technology. For example, enabled by new
business models, interoperability with other vendors has now become a value driver rather
than a leak in the enterprise' moat.
This completely changes the dynamics of the marketplace.
As a result, entirely new product categories no longer prevented by vendors' data hoarding
strategies explode on the scene, including, for example, much better targeted advertising
because users can volunteer personal data without fear of privacy violations, proactive
maintenance of consumer products by an army of service providers no longer inhibited by
products, and far more reuse and upcycle of previously discarded products.
As the Good Tech brand rises, and unprecedented features become available, more and more
technology users are willing to make a clean break with surveillance legacy platforms,
and shame their friends to move from the legacy social networks into moving to Good Tech as well.
Ultimately, the legacy vendors practicing surveillance capital face shrinking users bases,
less access to capital, and structurally cannot compete with the new generation of
Good Tech companies.
Scenario 3: Frustrated Users and Open-Source Developers Start Cooperating for Mutual Benefit
It started small, with a few technically-competent digital rights activists pooling
their expertise and a little bit of money to operate their own
Mastodon server, so they could stay
in touch just like on Twitter, but without an unaccountable third party in the loop.
(Note: this, of course, already has happened; there are many
Mastodon deployments like this all around the world, some of which have already progressed
further along the lines outlined below.)
As interest and user numbers grew, the previously informal collaborations started to be
formalized: users not contributing their labor would pay a monthly fee, from which systems
administrators would be paid to keep the deployment up and running reliably. Over time,
the initial collaborative decision making process for the project
morphed into a formal cooperative governance structure in which all stakeholders –
users and maintainers – have equal rights. They decided on all matters affecting the
project democratically, although different cooperatives employ different styles of
governance including direct, liquid and representative democracy.
Soon users started to ask for additional tools provided to them in a similar manner,
like document sharing, calendaring, e-mail, and more. Accountants would ask: “Microsoft
charges me $6.99 per month to access Excel. If I pay the same amount to the coop, can’t
we host something like Excel ourselves, and I can be certain that my clients' financials
stay private instead of whatever Microsoft does?” Some other users in the coop declared
that they had similar needs, and banded together, money in hand, to fund a project.
Which attracted open-source software developers who committed to porting open-source
collaborative document editing software into the cooperative’s environment and keep it
maintained for a monthly fee paid for by its users.
Of course, the apps operated by the various cooperatives always interoperated, because that’s
what users want and no vendor subject to the coop’s rules has the opportunity (or desire)
to lock in anybody. So leaving one cooperative to join another became as simple as moving
banks today, with no money or data lost in the process.
Some projects didn’t work out. Some money was wasted. Some coops imploded. Some users left
because initially, the quality of the coops' products was below the quality of social
networking products of today’s dominant internet platforms funded by billions of Wall Street
dollars. However, because the cooperative structure
relates the needs and wants of the users directly to the revenue opportunity of the vendors,
with no independent shareholders to satisfy, ultimately the match between needs and
features became much better than in pure capitalistic for-profit models, creating legions
of fanatically happy users and profitable vendors completely outside the need or desire
for surveillance capitalism.
Some final thoughts
Of course, there are other scenarios; elements of these scenarios could be combined in
different ways or shake out differently, and predictions are hard, particularly about
the future :-)
But there are people working on each of those scenarios today (myself included!), and it
is not obvious to me that those projects are doomed. In other words, they have promise!
How can we help them be more likely to succeed? Because I want out from surveillance
capitalism, and chances are, you do, too!
(Please get in touch.)