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The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism

I have been following the scandal of the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act (also known as the Snoopers’ Charter) and Holland’s Sleepwet and their relationship to the encroaching government powers over private data, privacy, data collection, surveillance, and free speech for several years now.  And very much related to these bills created ostensibly to protest us from “terrorism,” is Google’s encroaching powers over our lives, to include the freedom of expression protected by most national laws, not to mention EU and UN Charters, around the planet today.

When the Internet became a tool for communication and research in the late1980s (usually through universities and research institutes) and later rrendered public through commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) in 1991, most people were slow to catch on. Initially, I was inculcated into Internet culture by virtue of being a graduate student at New York University where I came to depend on their computer labs to churn out papers when not using friends’ computers. I still remember Archie, Telnet, and line mode browsers before the release of ViolaWWW.  By the mid 1990s students were curious about hypertext through Memex and Xanada while many others made their personal webpage which they would write in html with the help of on- or off-line instructions.  The concept of a free website builder had not yet emerged and everything was very much ad hoc, individuals figuring out how to fiddle with html as if a late 20th century Mini Cooper under whose hood the user would play around.  And yes, the flashing bright lights that every webpage seemed to embrace as if a will to trigger everyone visiting their page an epileptic seizure.

These were the golden days of the Internet when anything was acceptable to include the esthetically challenging, old school graphics, and the simple layout with repeating background images that defies any description. These were the days that websites were entirely about content such that if you want to read up on the Klingon Language Institute, presentation was tertiary, if even a concern at all. Even by the mid 1990s most businesses had not caught onto the potential of the Internet for marketing, public relations, and advertising.  The finances needed for publicity were still largely functioning through traditional modalities and when companies did not think that people would be using the Internet for commerce, much less research.

In 1995, when the NSF (National Science Foundation) began charging a fee for registering domain names there were only 120,000 registered domain names. By 1998, this number rose to over 3 million. And while Amazon started in 1994, the birth of eBay the year later kicked off e-commerce definitively.  Still most businesses did not actively incorporate the Internet into their structures and the cost of building a website was not even an afterthought for most given the Internet on a shoestring approach that many of us ran with. I was working on my PhD at this time and finding that my ability to learn languages was directly applicable to computer languages where I was able to volunteer for friends and even carve out a living writing web pages and making early e-commerce sites for friends.  Web designers in Manhattan were quickly becoming desirable and well paid as we rolled towards the new millennium with more and more businesses and individuals realizing the potential of the Internet.

The thing is until 2000, the Internet existed for most people as this virtual encyclopedia, news reference, information center to check out cinema times. There were even early prototypes of Skype and messenger like ICQ where peer-to-peer communications were viewed as a novelty. I had my first Internet conversation from my apartment in Park Slope to a man living at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. The Internet was an information highway, unregulated, and quite flexible considering kinds of technology it was slowly replacing.  Privacy schmivacy, right?

However, since 9/11 specifically and more recently around a series of culture wars, we are seeing how governments around the planet from the beginning of the new millennium had locked up ship and set out various legal initiatives that make it possible for governments to spy on its citizens. The US can be credited with fomenting such legislation that claims to do one thing (secure the “homeland”) while in reality, doing something quite different. So 45 days after 9/11 the Patriot Act, a vile piece of legislation that resulted in the disappearance of over 14,000 Muslim men within the United States, was born.  The residual force of the Patriot Act lay in the fact that this law made it easier for the US government to spy on its citizens with the government issuing National Security Letters (NSLs) without the need for a judge to sign off. The Patriot Act gave a new twist to McCarthyism since it put the power of the law into the hands of 43,000 law enforcement agents who had access to phone records collected through the NSLs. While most people today are aware of the importance of Edward Snowden’s and Julian Assange’s efforts to challenge the US government’s illegal acts of espionage on its own citizenry and illegal acts of violence, what many do not remember is how the Global War on Terror (GWOT) instigated much of the laws which rolled out enormous powers to Homeland Security, which decimated in the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and put immigration in the same bracket as terrorology.

From the US to the EU, one thing has become painfully clear to me in recent months: free speech, the freedom of conscience, and privacy are all under threat by big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. In fact, these companies are far more the enemy of the people than the NSA (National Security Agency) or GCHQ, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters. And Snowden has said as much referring to how he and his colleagues in the NSA were at the very least subject to some degree of democratic oversight while companies like Google and Facebook, as we saw recently with Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress this past Spring, maintain a business model which perfectly combines capitalism with surveillance and it is all perfectly unregulated.

In 2014, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney introduced the term “surveillance capitalism” in Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine where they explain its inception from the post-war architecture which combined the vehicle of sales framed within a Madison Avenue centralized corporate marketing revolution together with the creation of a permanent state of war headed by the Pentagon where the Cold War was buttressed by arms and fictional nuclear preparedness on the one hand, and the shop ‘til you drop on the other. The military-industrial complex and the marketing of society, according to Foster and McChesney, constituted the two principle surplus-absorption mechanisms until the financial crisis of the 1970s when a third vector of surplus-absorption was added: that of financialization which supplemented the system as the previous two mechanisms waned:

Each of these means of surplus absorption were to add impetus in different ways to the communications revolution, associated with the development of computers, digital technology, and the Internet. Each necessitated new forms of surveillance and control. The result was a universalization of surveillance, associated with all three areas of: (1) militarism/imperialism/security; (2) corporate-based marketing and the media system; and (3) the world of finance.

It is hard to do such a brilliant article justice, but suffice it to say that Foster and McChesney give an excellent history of how the hunt for Edward Snowden was not news. They chronicle a long history dating back to the “Army Files” (also known as CONUS) scandal where the Army had been spying on and keeping files on over seven million U.S. citizens through the use of over 1,500 plainclothes agents.  It was because of the CONUS scandal that Americans came to know of ARPANET, the precursor to today’s Internet where these secret files of Americans were kept and where the “limitless storage of data” proved a threat to healthy democracy.   

Surveillance capitalism is now part of our everyday where even the follow-up quality control questionnaires and all the privacy tick boxes we are asked to tick form part of a larger private sector databank of information. The problem is that most people think that such information is “harmless” and that it is of little consequence to their safety or privacy. But surveillance capitalism, as Foster and McChesney show us, surveillance capitalism could go much further than any government surveillance:

Like advertising and national security, it had an insatiable need for data. Its profitable expansion relied heavily on the securitization of household mortgages; a vast extension of credit-card usage; and the growth of health insurance and pension funds, student loans, and other elements of personal finance. Every aspect of household income, spending, and credit was incorporated into massive data banks and evaluated in terms of markets and risk. Between 1982 and 1990 the average debt load of individuals in the United States increased by 30 percent and with it the commercial penetration into personal lives.

So now with the government having the private sector doing its bidding in terms of farming information of its “client base,” business was not making a killing but private individuals were going further into debt while losing their freedom of privacy. Conterminous to individuals being stripped of their democratic freedom of privacy came the removal of the freedom of speech, recently cemented by the recent “redrafting” of NAFTA whereby major corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter were positioned to be the main benefactors of what is now called  United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA):

These big tech companies have been trying to reinvoke their immunity as previously held under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act through NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) renegotiations. And last month they were successful as NAFTA’s substitute, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement(USMCA), will now extend the immunity Congress had earlier provided with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) into neighboring North American countries. Not only is this is a gift to the tech industry, but it is a complete paradox. The tech industry lobbied heavily to get back Section 230 immunity by invoking “free expression” for its users while conterminously taking on the policing free speech on its platforms. In short, big tech’s request for absolute immunity, in light of its use of Section 230 to justify political bias and censorship, reveals a troubling present for free speech on the net.

Over the past year there has been an unprecedented amount of thought policing on social media by Facebook and Twitter where now there are rules that penalize users for “fake news” and other thought crimes while Facebook and Twitter have closed down hundreds of political media pages just before November’s midterm elections.  Censorship is now commonplace on these platforms just as Google is once again facing a fresh wave of criticism from human rights groups over its plan to launch a censored search engine in China, a project called Dragonfly. In an eery twist to the democratization of Information that was once predicted in the early 1990s with the public launch of the Internet, we are now seeing how information, in the wrong hands, is not only not progressive, but is proving to be quite dangerous.

The masses of people playing Candy Crush and using Viber on their mobiles are overwhelmingly unaware of their participation in data mining how their participation poses a danger to a healthy democracy. We need to stay informed about the encroachment of big business and social media corporations in our private lives and the depths to which the private sector can farm information. In the end, who controls this information and how it is employed is another and far grimmer question that we must ask, even at the risk of uncovering terrifying and inexorable truths.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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