For privacy activists, 2021 brings one big victory after another. First, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, announced in March that it would stop tracking individual users as they roam from site to site. This decision was part of Alphabet’s broader campaign to phase out the use of third-party cookies – an old but controversial technology, increasingly blamed for today’s lax culture of data-sharing.
Instead of tracking individual users via cookies, Alphabet plans to use machine learning to group users into cohorts based on behavioral similarities. Ads will be targeted to these cohorts, not to individuals. Alphabet will still need some data to place the user into the appropriate cohort, but advertisers won’t need to touch the user’s browser.
Now comes the second chapter of this broader industry repositioning. Earlier this month Apple introduced an important update to its operating system, which streamlines how developers of external apps such as Facebook track Apple’s users. Those users must now explicitly agree to having their data collected. While Facebook initially opposed the move, it has since moderated that view, even promising to develop “privacy-enhancing” advertising technologies that rely less on data about users.
Yet I wonder if these surprising victories for the privacy movement may, in the end, turn out to be pyrrhic ones – at least for the broader democratic agenda. Instead of reckoning with the broader political power of the tech industry, the most outspoken tech critics have traditionally focused on holding the tech industry to account for numerous violations of existing privacy and data protection laws.
That strategy presumed that such legal transgressions would continue in perpetuity. Now that Alphabet – and soon, perhaps, Facebook – are rushing to leverage machine learning to create personalized ads that are also privacy-preserving, one begins to wonder if putting so many critical eggs into the proverbial privacy basket was a wise choice. Terrorized by the ubiquity and eternity of “surveillance capitalism”, have we made it all too easy for technology companies to actually live up to our expectations? And have we wasted a decade of activism that should have been focused on developing alternative accounts of why we should fear big tech?
Something similar is likely to happen in other domains marked by recent moral panics over digital technologies. The tech industry will address mounting public anxieties over fake news and digital addiction by doubling down on what I call “solutionism”, with digital platforms mobilizing new technologies to offer their users a bespoke, secure and completely controllable experience.
Apple, as usual, leads the way here, offering users a slew of curated news and tools for measuring their productivity and digital wellbeing. In February, Facebook also launched a trial – for now, only in the UK – that appends posts about climate change with a banner directing people to the company’s dedicated climate portal. It may be that even the challenge of fake news will prove easier to handle than commonly assumed.
The nascent, and probably well-meaning, movement for “humane technology” stands to succumb to a similar pyrrhic victory: the technology giants will surely find a way to be both humane and highly profitable. Ironically, the more the tech industry is painted as anti-privacy or anti-humane, the more public legitimacy it stands to gain merely by flaunting its ability to deliver on the values so dear to its critics.
This suggests that we need a different, much broader critique of the tech industry. Is there a better way to account for the heavy toll that its solutionist mindset exerts on society? There is. I suspect we’ve been looking in the wrong places for potent critiques of this industry. We have assumed that surveillance and fake news are what economists would call “externalities” attached to what are otherwise good, progressive and innovative business practices.
But does that assumption hold? It’s time that we see through the tech industry’s lip service to innovation, and ask, instead, just who is allowed to innovate – and under what conditions – in the current system. For all the creative disruption that its leaders promise us, the tech industry delivers an extremely unappetizing dish that invariably features the same set of ingredients: users, platforms, advertisers, and app developers.
The institutional imagination of the tech industry simply does not admit other actors who can play a role in shaping the socially beneficial uses of digital infrastructures. Wikipedia aside – it was born three years before Facebook – there are no digital counterparts to the varied, highly innovative institutions that emerged to fulfill humanity’s needs for communication and education: the library, the museum, the post office.
Who knows what other kinds of institutions are possible in today’s digital environment? Instead of finding that out, policymakers have surrendered this whole process of discovery to the technology industry. Instead of building infrastructures that can facilitate such large-scale experimentation, they are content with the existing infrastructures that are operated (often as billable services) by the tech industry.
Naturally, the industry’s key players want to ensure that any new digital institution is born as a startup or, at least, as an app – to be inserted and monetized through their platforms and operating systems. As a result, today’s digital milieu is not as pro-innovation as it seems: it actively abhors institutions and associations that do not play by the rules of its leading intermediaries. It excels at building slick apps for museums and libraries but it’s terrible at figuring out what the actual digital equivalent of the museum or the library might be.
For all we know, this might as well be the startup – the default institutional response that solutionism produces for every problem. But why force every good new idea into the straitjacket of the startup? In most cases, that straitjacket imposes its own imperatives: users need to be monetized; data needs to be gathered; subscriptions need to be sold. Why limit ourselves to just these few paths?
What we want is something genuinely new: an institution that will know what parts of existing laws and regulations to suspend – like the library does with intellectual property law, for example – in order to fully leverage the potential inherent in digital technologies in the name of great public good.
The tech giants’ recent respect for privacy should not mislead us. After all, it’s their monopolistic hold on our imagination – making us unable to see technology not as applied science but as a potent political institution for transforming other institutions – that constitutes the greatest problem for democracy. And it’s only by reclaiming that imagination – rather than by overdosing on feelgood solutionism – that we can aspire to tame them.
Evgeny Morozov is the founder of the Syllabus, and the author of several books on technology and politics