“We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.“ So the famous US Supreme Court Justice and ‘crusader for social justice’ and breaker-upper of Gilded Age monopolies, Louis D. Brandeis is said to have said, perhaps sometimes in the early 1930s.
Today, perhaps the best-known neo-Brandeisian anti-trust advocate is Tim Wu, Columbia law professor, ‘father of net neutrality’ and author of a series of books likening today’s commercial excesses – in particular in the digital space – to the ‘Gilded Age’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Of course, it is not really an either-or debate. It’s a complex and convoluted, tangled web of interests and angles, and any claimant of simple solutions has likely got a degree from snake oil university.
Neville discusses an article in The Conversation by De Montford University professor Eerke Boiten, who advocates GDPR-based impact assessments to hold tech firms accountable, rather than letting them continue to ‘move fast and break things’. Jeff Jarvis, CUNY journalism professor, takes a very different stance in his recent EU regulation critique Europe Against the Net.
In our latest discussion about Facebook, GDPR and general big tech regulation issues, Neville, Sam and I come down on different sides of the either-or debate of public vs business interest.
Ladies and gentlemen: The Battle of the Unintended Consequences! In the left corner, the defenders of a free market and an internet that must not be curbed. In the right corner, the wardens of democracy, privacy and free will. Both Neville and Sam, in line with Jarvis, rightly point to the dangers of regulatory overreach. Baby, bath water etc.
They are right. And yet. To both Neville and Sam (and Jeff Jarvis), my inner Rhett Butler responds “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn…”. Not just in this latest, episode 26 of our SDF podcast, I find myself somewhat closer to the right corner of this particular battle, than my two co-podcasters.
Which is not to say that we don’t agree on most things. We do. For example, on the recent Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ report by the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS), which likens Facebook and its leading executives to “digital gangsters”.
Ah, Facebook. Never-ending fountain of discussion points for our little discussion group. For all its not very well hidden greed and cack-handed public appearances, the numbers are the numbers, and the shareholders won’t complain about the latest record-breaking quarter. Will things ever change?
Neville points to European countries turning the screws, from France fining Google, to German legislators putting pressure on Facebook and its WhatsApp integration, to the British government mulling drastic fines for the digital platforms if they continue to fail to eradicate harmful content. DCMS chairman Damian Collins is certainly right when he states that tech firms “listen with their wallets”.
Sam agrees, and at the same time feels that Facebook (and Google) are way ahead of lawmakers – and how is that ever going to change? His prediction: it’s not so much the lawmakers the big advertising money-gobbling platforms should fear. It’s the fact that sooner or later, advertisers won’t put up with the walled garden principle any more.
Yes brand safety might be an issue, but not as big as unreliable, unproveable metrics when it comes to proving return on marketing investment. Which also means that with demonstrable return, there will be little desire to rock the boat. It’s business, after all.
It is indeed. Very big business. Which brings me back to Tim Wu, and his latest book, The Curse of Bigness. It continues and sharpens an argument that Wu has made first in his 2011 work, The Master Switch, and then 2016, in The Attention Merchants. The power of monopolies and trusts, the commercialization of attention, unfettered global capitalism – for Wu, it has reached a point that’s very similar to what the US in particular went through in the early 20th century.
Big topics for the SmallDataForum. Central, essential topics, and never better articulated than in Shoshana Zuboff’s thesis of surveillance capitalism. First publicly articulated in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2016, it has now been published as an almost 700 page tome, and likened to the works of Adam Smith, Max Weber and Karl Marx by John Naughton in The Observer.
Like Wu, Zuboffs draws the comparison to the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And just like then, this is about knowledge, and power. Zuboff calls this the essential questions: “Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?”
Her central argument is about the “instrumentation and instrumentalization of behavior for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetization, and control.” Regular listeners will have heard us many times use the phrase ‘if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product’. Zuboff has turned it into profound, and profoundly researched argument.
Essentially, our freely available social media data becomes behavioural data which is turned into predictions of future behaviour, and sold to advertisers to optimise the marketing funnel. And as Sam has argued, in a business sense, that would make the stakeholders in the business process happy.
Cision’s recent acquisition of Trendkite is interesting in this context. We agree that a quasi-monopoly in the communication measurement and evaluation space isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it might help with standardisation in a space that has been dominated by pseudo-scientific quibbles over the better PR value of articles for way too long.
The employees recently laid off due to restructuring will probably disagree. Cision’s ambition to become “one of the most important cloud technology players in the entire industry” makes them a player in Zuboff’s behavioural futures market. Where that leads – will be the topic of future podcasts.
So, finally, to the Brexit Hokey Cokey: in, out, shake it all about. By the time of SDF27, something important will have happened. Or not.
Another comparison between now and more than 100 years ago is the idea of lions led by donkeys. Surely there can’t be a better illustration of the trials and tribulations of Brexit, than the revealing tweets that the four dads who run the Twitter handle @ByDonkeys keep serving up as real-world posters.
By that account, at least British humour still works.
Listen to episode 26: