In this age of surveillance capitalism, the law is left for dust

Can the immense power of the world’s largest oligopolies to plunder our privacy and shape our lives be reined in? In recent days, German antitrust authorities struck a modest blow in consumers’ favour. The ruling of the Federal Cartel Office will prohibit Facebook from aggregating personal information it collects from consumers with that collected by its subsidiaries including WhatsApp and Instagram. Facebook has already announced it will appeal the ruling. The stakes are high.

In October last year, Tim Cook, the CEO of technology behemoth Apple, blew the whistle on the destruction of our privacy at the hands of major technology companies. In a speech to the European Parliament, he condemned the “data industrial complex” – a reference to the way we all unwittingly hand over our personal information to companies in exchange for access to the internet. In calling for greater regulation of the online world, Cook argued: “Our own information – from the everyday to the deeply personal – is being weaponised against us …” to such an extent that companies know us better than we do.

The business of watching our every move on the internet, recording that information and then selling it to derive a profit was perfected by the big technology monopolies – Facebook, Google, Amazon and their Silicon Valley followers. By obtaining a valuable asset from us for free (our data) and then selling it to companies seeking to better target advertisements at us, they have become some of the richest and arguably most powerful corporations in the history of capitalism.

US academic and digital technology expert Shoshana Zuboff coined the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe this business model. Initially pioneered by Facebook, it became the default model for Silicon Valley start-ups before spreading as other businesses saw the potential to reap profits by selling data about consumers.

It now resembles a data free-for-all. Your digital devices, including your car, generate enormous information about you. The GPS system in your car generates valuable personal information, including when, where and how fast you drive. Car companies obtain that data every day, enabling them to track your every movement in your car, aggregate the data you produce and sell it to other businesses.

The age of surveillance capitalism has also spawned an industry of data brokers – businesses that accumulate our data, construct elaborate profiles of our lives and sell them to banks, insurers, telcos, retailers, big technology companies and others. Our profiles include information about our political leanings and affiliations, personality traits, dating and sexual preferences, our taste in clothes. According to the Financial Times, computer software company Oracle obtains extensive personal data from more than 80 data brokers to accumulate up to 30,000 data attributes for each individual. It then sells that data to other businesses.

The data that we generate and that the private sector accumulates can also be sold to governments, political parties and purveyors of the dark arts of politics such as Cambridge Analytica. Data about medical devices that we use can be sold to insurers to enable them to change the way insurance policies for ill health are designed.

According to Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the US-based Centre for Digital Democracy, we are all now “invisibly attached to a living, breathing database” tracking our every move.

And yet we are fiercely opposed to intrusions on our privacy. Health Minister Greg Hunt recently suggested that up to 10 per cent of eligible people may opt out of the digital My Health system. The Australian Community Attitudes to Privacy is a regular survey of our views. In 2017, 16 per cent of people surveyed indicated they would avoid dealing with a government agency to manage concerns about privacy while 58 per cent would avoid dealing with a private company.

On December 7 last year, federal Parliament rushed through laws that aim to ensure police and other security forces can obtain encrypted information of criminal suspects. The legislation requires technology companies to co-operate with law-enforcement agencies in the investigation of online terrorism, child sexual offences and a range of other crimes. The legislation was roundly condemned by technology companies, digital rights groups, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Law Council of Australia and other human rights organisations. The online community was appalled.

Still, each day we log on to Google, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and mutely shed our privacy. We hand over highly valuable and personal information to the most powerful and profitable monopolies on Earth – for free – and without any means of knowing where it might end up. Is this another case of cognitive dissonance? To a degree yes, but the explanation is more nuanced.

Awareness of the privacy risks is growing but, for most of us, the internet is now a necessity of life – a utility like electricity, gas and water. The price of online life is signing up to non-negotiable, incomprehensible online contracts that permit technology companies to plunder our data.

That we can’t be sure of what parts of our lives are being monitored, aggregated and sold compounds the problem. The problem remains abstract.

Our existing privacy laws are woefully inadequate. A significant and influential part of the online community remains wedded to the “Californian ideology” spouted by early Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: an odd mix of individualism, libertarianism and neo-liberalism. The birth of the internet was accompanied by utopian decrees of autonomy and independence from government. Among them are leftists who continue to prophesy that the information technology revolution will supplant capitalism with a system of collaborative production. While they stridently oppose government intervention in digital platforms, they are silent on the plundering of our privacy at the hands of surveillance capitalism.

If there is a way out of this dangerous mess, then Europe is leading the charge. In May 2018, new data protection laws, aimed at empowering consumers to give informed consent about the use of their personal data, were introduced. In recent weeks, the French data protection regulator levied a record 50 million euros fine against Google for failing to provide comprehensible information to consumers about its use of their data, including data used to personalise advertisements to consumers.

In Australia, the ACCC has commenced an investigation into the impact of digital platforms and has already indicated that it favours stronger consumer protections. It is due to report in June. Whatever that report contains, it is difficult to be optimistic. Meaningful reform will necessarily involve disrupting the disrupters – that is, dismantling the prevailing and immensely lucrative business model of the most powerful corporations on earth.

This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.