Three Scenarios for Rolling Back Surveillance Capitalism

By Johannes Ernst


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 out.

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 divestiture campaigns 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 hermetically sealed cloud castle 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.)