"Surveillance Capitalism": A Summary of Critics
Companies that allegedly practice "surveillance capitalism" have become seemingly inescapable in our modern economy, leading a host of critics to explain the many ways those like Facebook and Google threaten our lives and freedoms.
The size and activities of Google, and other Big Tech companies, has increasingly grabbed the attention of many on the ideological left, center, and right. (This is putting to one side the shortcomings of these particular categories.) On the Right, this has meant allegations of Google’s bias against conservatives. In the center, it has included allegations of Google’s power against competition. On the Left, it has meant allegations of Google’s exploitation of just about everybody.
The latter came to the fore again last year in the wake of Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff’s book entitled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (January 2019). The Amazon entry for this book in part reads: "[T]he first detailed examination of the unprecedented form of power called 'surveillance capitalism,' and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control our behavior."
As a starting point, one ought to be skeptical of any explicit or implied claims of "game changers" and "new economics." One ought also to be suspicious of any explicit or implied assertion that "out-of-control" capitalism is, once again, the problem and that the solution, yet again, is government "in greater control." Finally, one's BS detector ought to be on high alert when reading such doublespeak as ascribes to capitalism the hallmarks of statism—i.e., "powerful," "control," and, of course, "surveillance."
What the Left Is Saying
Sam Biddle quickly gives away the anticapitalist agenda of those on the Left in his article for The Intercept (February 2019) by favorably "drawing comparisons to seminal socioeconomic investigations like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Karl Marx’s Capital." He also interviewed Zuboff, who explained that Google and others are "just secretly scraping your private experience as raw material, and [selling] predictions of what you’re gonna do." And Zuboff alarmingly concluded: “These are bald-faced interventions in the exercise of human autonomy,…the 'right to the future tense',…[and] the very material essence of the idea of free will."
In another interview, this time by John Laidler of the Harvard Gazette (March 2019), Zuboff expanded on this:
I define surveillance capitalism as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets.
She also boldly asserted that: "this [is] actually a new variant of capitalism," which supposedly "has now spread beyond the tech companies to new surveillance-based ecosystems in virtually every economic sector" and purportedly "arose in the era of a neoliberal consensus around the superiority of self-regulating companies and markets."
Katie Fitzpatrick starts her review of Zuboff’s book for The Nation (April 2019) with more subtle anticapitalism than Biddle did:
By resisting Go365 [a health monitoring app], the West Virginia teachers waged two battles at once: They fought in the trenches of state austerity and on the front lines of private digital surveillance.
Although Fitzpatrick doesn’t mention Marx as Biddle did, she uses Marxist language throughout to describe "earlier capitalism" and "surveillance capitalism," such as "exploitation," "surplus," and "extraction," not to mention postmodern statist concepts such as "free will illusion," "individual freedom chaos," and "conditioned social engineering." She revealingly concluded, and lamented that Zuboff did not, that:
The problem with surveillance capitalism is as much the capitalism as it is the surveillance.
Two new attempts to regulate "the problem" of "surveillance capitalism," and thus "capitalism" as well, come from Europe and California. Regarding the former, the Financial Times (FT) reported on December 2019 that “the EU’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR], [was] six years in the making before coming into force in May 2018." They also, as the mainstream media (MSM) almost always does, inappropriately mixed in plenty of subjective prostatism opinions, such as: "There is no doubt that GDPR has already done a lot of good" and "But GDPR is deficient in several respects.…It should be looking to reshape data markets, rather than just regulate them as they are."
Slate reported on similar regulations that recently passed in California, and they wasted no time with subtleties, putting their opinion right in the subtitle: "Thanks, California!" (December 2019). They then described how
The California Consumer Privacy Act [CCPA] essentially empowers consumers [starting on New Year’s Day 2020] to access the personal data that companies have collected on them, to demand that it be deleted, and to prevent it from being sold to third parties.
They also optimistically opine:
Since it’s a lot more work to create a separate infrastructure just for California residents to opt out of…, these requirements will transform the internet for everyone.
As if that were not enough, they start, as the FT did for GDPR, the process of lobbying for more market intervention: "The law is vague on how much power and transparency companies must offer to consumers in this process."
What the Center Is Saying
In an article for Truth on the Market, Alec Stapp states his thesis in the title itself: "Any Way You Measure It, Warren Is Wrong to Claim “Facebook and Google Account for 70% of All Internet Traffic" (October 2019). In countering Senator Elizabeth Warren’s statistic about Facebook and Google’s combined 70 percent market share of traffic, Stapp provides the following alternative stats: 20 percent of volume; 21 percent of time; 38 percent of connections; 33 percent of referrals; 32 percent of all advertising; and 59 percent of online advertising. And he, very importantly, notes that online advertising prices have fallen 42 percent over the past decade as volume has increased.
Adam Candeub and Mark Epstein address a key legal question about Google, and others, such as Facebook and Twitter, in an article for City Journal asking the question, "Platform or Publisher?" (May 2018). They write: "Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes online platforms for their users' defamatory, fraudulent, or otherwise unlawful content…but the law was not intended to facilitate political censorship." They also importantly note that Section 230 was a response to a judicial decision, under the common law, that concluded that
utilizing technology and the manpower to delete objectionable content made [one] more like publisher[s] than…newsstands, bookstores, and libraries.
Michael Dougherty provides some further background to Section 230 in the National Review (June 2019). He writes that it was passed: "in part to allow Internet services…to block pornography…[and not be] treated in the law as publishers…[which are] liable for whatever libels and slanders users posted on them." Section 230: "allows proprietors of websites and forums to set standards—to edit and moderate their content without becoming a publisher of them." But also, Section 230: "is now the legal remit under which social-media giants shadow-ban, block, and censor conservative speech."
What the Right Is Saying
In his article entitled "Google Marxism" (December 2019), Michael Rectenwald asserted that there is nowadays a "Google Archipelago," which "is guided by a left authoritarianism." He described this as: "the most developed set of technological apparatuses for disciplinary and governmental power and control in the world," including "The principals of what I call Big Digital—the purveyors of mega-data services, media, cable, and internet services, social media platforms, Artificial Intelligence (AI) agents, apps, and the developing Internet of Things." He thus warned that "Socialism has always had global pretensions. Only Google Marxism is capable of creating it, albeit in corporate socialist form."
William Anderson has also written about Google for the Mises Institute on a number of occasions over the years, including in the context of woke capitalism (July 2019), economy bureaucratization (July 2018) and antitrust law (December 2005). Regarding the latter, he wrote: "Google's search policies are decidedly left-wing," but "[n]o one is forced to use the Internet at all and, thus, can avoid Google altogether if that is their choice." Nevertheless, Anderson warned, "The vagueness of Antitrust Law makes it easy for government to heap abuse upon those firms that are out of favor at any given time, as no real legal proof is needed for the courts to act against the alleged monopolist.” And he added: "despite the millions of dollars that the company's leaders and employees have raised for the Democrats, it is doubtful that many Democrats would be willing to stand up for a firm that is accused of being a monopolist."
Writing for Antiwar.com (August 2018), Justin Raimondo reminded that: "The Communications Decency Act immunizes these companies against any [common law] torts,” and that “[t]his two-tiered system is responsible for the cartel-like conditions enjoyed by Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the rest of the Silicon Valley crowd.” He added that, this plus "[t]he vast wealth poured into this new technology by investors buoyed by historically low interest rates, has resulted in the enrichment of Big Data beyond the dreams of Croesus." The result is that “In recognition of [these] government-granted privileges…the Lords of the Internet have agreed to become the regime’s enforcers.”
These organizations that allegedly practice "surveillance capitalism" have become seemingly inescapable in our modern economy. This has led to a host of critics attempting to identify and explain the many ways that organizations like Facebook and Google have become damaging to our everyday lives and freedoms.
Many of these critics get it wrong, though.
On the Left, the reports and commentary about Google’s so-called surveillance capitalism were more about the capitalism than the surveillance. As they've done many times in the past (such as during the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) of the late 2000s, the Dot-com collapse of the early 2000s, and the Microsoft dominance of the 1990s), they call for failed and selfish markets to be heavily regulated or even replaced by successful and selfless government. And emotion-laden stories, from the edges of the bell curve, are once again trotted out to bolster their case.
In the center, there is largely an acceptance of the mixed economy (of markets and government) as it currently stands, and, in at least two cases, some pushback on further government intervention. Although these two do not seem to grasp the significance, they imply that government may be the source of a "market structure," resulting in "market power," and that regardless of that, "market conduct" includes "market performance" resulting in falling prices. (For more on structure-conduct-performance, see Regulated Monopolies are not "Natural," April 2018.)
Some conservatives get closer to the mark in their concern for free speech and the potential for abuse of government power through crony capitalism.
Yet, only the free market critics cut through to the most important problem—namely that the state's antitrust legislation has provided legal advantages against competitors while providing legal immunity to these firms. The size and power of the "surveillance capitalists" has allowed the industry to escape the brunt of antitrust legislation. Many of their competitors have not been so lucky, and this an unfair advantage, to say the least. Meanwhile, as Raimondo notes, federal law protects these firms from being called to account in the civil courts.
The result is a legal landscape that favors some at the expense of others. But as Anderson concludes, no one is forced to use the services of these firms, so claims of "monopoly" are questionable. Ultimately, it is this lack of true monopoly that illustrates the weakness of many claims that government action is necessary to rein in firms that are powerful precisely because so many voluntarily use their services.
[Originally Published at The Mises Institute]