Once upon a time, there was a vision of a digital utopia. Instead, we now have global tech monopolies, surveillance capitalism and extraordinary levels of political manipulation. Welcome to the modern world...
How did it come to this? It is a good question and one that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Because, right now, we are in a very bad place – and it is hard to see a way out of it.
Do you remember the wild, Utopian fantasies of the people who believed that the internet was the answer to all our woes? Who thought that it would not only break the stranglehold of traditional establishment media, but liberate us all from tyrannical regimes, political despots and bureaucratic nut jobs alike? Who saw in it the unassailable key to a new egalitarianism, and an abundance of knowledge and opportunity for all? Who thought that it would bring down corrupt governments and usher in a new era of open-ness, transparency and accountability? Who saw algorithms as the new gospel and the internet as a kind of evolutionary replacement for the Sun god, as the ultimate source of life and energy on earth? Oh, and truth and justice as well…
I could never take any of that shit seriously. Technology is a wonderful thing. It can and does transform people lives. The most obvious example is in relation to the extraordinary advances in medicine, which enable hearts to be transplanted, replacement limbs to be created, new teeth to be inserted and so on. But the instant access to information on the internet has also been an extraordinary boon. Truly, a human visiting us from 100 years ago would be spellbound by what humankind has achieved in science and technology in the interim.
But early on in Operation Digital Transformation, I felt a deep sense of foreboding as to where the internet – and the powers it was unleashing – were going to take us. And I was never able to shake it. Maybe I am naturally paranoid. Perhaps there is a secret technophobe lurking inside. But the thought niggled at me, to the extent that I could never harmonise with the proselytisers sense of euphoria and optimism. I knew they were wrong. A lot of good would come of it for sure. But a lot of other shit would rise to the surface as well.
And a lot of good people would get hurt along the way.
The thing about technology is that if we don’t know who controls it, and how, it is potentially dangerous. And, in a world where governments are constantly on the look-out for ways to manage and control people and to amass information on them, I could see the likelihood of a web of surveillance into which people would wittingly or otherwise be sucked. I wasn’t sure how it’d work. Or when the dark forces of one kind or another might assert themselves. But I knew that they would.
This was a much more innocent time, before Facebook had been invented and Google had yet to map the world. In truth I had no idea how monstrously pernicious it would all become. But I had a bad feeling all the same.
Even in the early days, there was talk of ads that’d follow you around. Of the possibility that your every move would be tracked and that you’d be targeted on your perambulations by one commercial entity or another. The entrepreneur who was regaling me with this particular morsel of news, long before smart phones were in common use, was rubbing his hands in anticipation. “Incredible isn’t it?” he said. “The possibilities are amazing, if you can just come up with the right things to sell and the right way of selling them.”
It sounded horrible to me. There were plenty of ads on the internet already – and in the hands of tasteless publishers they could be corrosively ugly and intrusive. But this new possibility seemed far uglier again and more invasive.
From the outset, Google had presented itself as a force for good in a world gone wrong. “Don’t be evil,” is their motto, part of their corporate code of conduct. One day, Hot Press got a letter from them. It said that they were going to put every book online, and that if we didn’t tell them not to, the books we had published would be included. And there was an implication that if we didn’t play ball, we’d be forever excluded from the glorious digital future of books.
It smelt like bullying. It felt like bullying. Because it was bullying.
That super-friendly missive coincided, more or less, with the moment when the self-styled messiahs of freedom on the internet were also insisting that they were perfectly entitled to take any music you had recorded or any film you had shot, and make it available for ‘free’ distribution to everyone in the world, without your permission – in fact whether you wanted it released or not.
And they roared at unbelievers that this was the dawn of a wonderful new era.
Internet idealists and anarchists, many of them well-meaning, spread the gospel that information wants to be free. Google and Facebook saw the opening created by this new credo. Google’s modus operandi was that you don’t ask permission, you tell people: we’re putting the books online. YouTube – bought by Google – operated on the same principle. Stick the historic clips of artists in action up there. Grab the videos and make them live. Pay no one. If someone has a problem they can try to stop us and we’ll tie them up for years in legal machinations.
People or companies who thought fairness and respect might still be important wouldn’t take liberties like this. But there was a veneer of populism under which this naked land-grab could be masked: people want free music! Why should they have to pay? Artists’ incomes collapsed. Tech giants became multi-billion dollar outfits by enabling the theft of the artists’ work. Thus were fresh empires built – on arrogance, aggression and outright theft, all executed under a veneer of the new liberation theology of internet freedom.
Google and Facebook in particular are now monopolies. They are soaking up the vast bulk of the total global advertising spend. Google’s revenue in 2015 was $74.5 billion. In 2016, Facebook’s was $27.638 billion.
Facebook’s profits were over $10 billion.
On one level, you have to think: fair play to anyone who can get away with convincing ordinary people to part with intimate information about themselves; allow their every action to be tracked; and generally provide free content to one social media platform or another, so that they become the raw material in the product the tech giants manufacture. It is a Faustian pact, if ever there was one.
But underlying all of this is the stark truth that digital utopianism has turned out to be a hoax. The long-term, secretive interests of government in having access to the information on every citizen that the internet and data analytics together enable companies like Google and Facebook to amass was sufficient for them to give these tech companies what amounts to a free pass.
Google, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms were afforded what is called “safe harbour” protection by the US authorities. This is what gives them an extraordinary and completely unwarranted competitive advantage over traditional media.
The truth is that Google and Facebook, to discuss just the two biggest tech monopolies, really are publishers. They are competing in the same advertising market as newspapers, radio stations and TV stations. But safe harbour protection means that they cannot be sued for libel or damages in the way that RTE, the Irish Times or Hot Press can.
In effect, they are entirely unregulated. They do not have conform to standards set out by any independent authority. And so videos are uploaded on Facebook of people being murdered; of incitement to hatred; of instructions as to how best to strangle a woman; of kids self-harming.
In the familiar world of media inhabited by newspapers and magazines, decisions as to whether material of this kind should be published, or not, would be made by editors – sometimes cynically, of course, but generally in good faith.
In the world of Facebook, it is only if there is a complaint that an editorial process kicks in – and even then, with in the region of 2 billion users uploading stuff on a round-the-clock basis, the numbers employed as monitors are wholly inadequate to the task.
So whither the promised digital utopia in 2017?
We have two huge monopolies that are in an unassailable, dominant position in the global media landscape. They are involved in what is effectively covert surveillance on a phenomenal scale, and they are using the data they gather to make enormous fortunes for a small number of individuals. It is what is called, for good reason, Surveillance Capitalism.
But it is worse than that, because these two enormously powerful machines have been co-opted by the extreme right in an attempt to shift the tectonic plates of political and ideological thinking. And it has worked.
The US academic Jonathan Taplin explains that on the run-in to the recent US general election, Mark Zuckerberg succumbed to pressure from FoxNews and Breibart and removed editors from Facebook’s news selection process. Taplin has produced graphs which show that the explosion in fake news happened immediately after that decision had been implemented by Facebook.
Facebook and Twitter won the election for Donal Trump, with a little bit of help from Wikileaks and the FBI. But more than any other factor, it was the gaming of social media and of Facebook in particular – using algorithms and bots to flood all available platforms with lies and disinformation – that made all the difference in both the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum.
Instead of protecting citizens, governments have stood back and quietly applauded the extraordinary achievement of the tech giants in creating a version of Big Brother on a scale the Stasi couldn’t even have begun to imagine – into which, of course, they can tap at any moment on the flimsiest of pretexts.
The tech companies can trace your every step. In fact they can predict your moves even before you make them, as they do when a message pops up automatically on the phone of a member of my family, saying how long it’ll take to get to Marlay Park on a Sunday morning, because Google has logged that going there is a matter of routine.
There is something deeply wrong with all of this – but governments are complicit because, as Edward Snowdon demonstrated, digital technology plays into their hands. Legislation allows governments to demand that they see every email and text you have ever written. Which might just be alright here in Ireland now. But would you really want a government led by an Irish equivalent of Donald Trump or Recep Erdogan to have that power?
In the US, politicians are getting far too much money from tech companies to do anything to stem their hegmony. While Europe has also been in thrall to these behemoths, that may change. In Germany, there is a move to impose fines of over €1 million if unacceptable content is not removed from social media quickly enough.
The European Commissioner for Competition might have a role to play. So might telecoms regulatory authorities; and the European data protection commissioner. Then there is the European parliament. It is the duty of these agencies to protect European citizens from exploitation by monopolies and from the misuse of data.
The first progressive step would be a levy on all advertising revenues generated by Facebook, Google, and the rest, in Europe, for redistribution among the media that produce the content purloined and aggregated by the tech giants. But that is only a start. We also need effective regulation of data mining and its exploitation either commercially or politically.
Don’t hold your breath. Because the answer to the question “how did it come to this?” is that it suits governments. They too want to keep an eye on what the plebs are doing.
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