Law in the Internet Society

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EthanMackaySecondEssay 1 - 09 Jan 2018 - Main.EthanMackay
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Harnessing Discontent to Push for a New Paradigm

-- By EthanMackay - 09 Jan 2018

People Are Increasingly Wary of Big Tech Companies

When I was in college, big tech companies were cool. I used to hear from friends about the weird questions Google interviewers asked, the crazy art in the Facebook offices, and the ping pong tables and beanbags in every Silicon Valley room. Lately, my friends don’t talk about those kinds of perks unless they’re making fun of them. And this shift is happening on a far larger scale. Consider the depiction of the fictional company “Hooli” in HBO’s Silicon Valley. The show endlessly mocks the Google-Facebook-Apple-Amazon-Microsoft stand-in. Consider a recent South Park episode, in which the show satirizes Facebook’s peddling of fake news and Mark Zuckerberg’s megalomania. And these companies aren’t just mocked in popular culture, they’re also feared. In 2013, The Circle by Dave Eggers, was a bestseller. It’s a warning about the power of big technology companies to control people through ubiquitous data collection. In a recent New York Times article, Doug Chayka dubbed Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft the “Frightful Five” while criticizing their effects on new startups. Here’s a Fast Company September 2017 article entitled “Why the Public’s Love Affair With Silicon Valley Might Be Over”. Here’s an October 2017 article in the New York Times entitled “Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend”.

The Source of the Shift

This shift in views seems to come from increasing popular recognition that big technology companies wield awesome power and that they have already used it for evil and selfish purposes. They spend huge amounts of money on lobbying. They cheat by manipulating services to make more money. They push around the little guy when they don’t like what he says. They rip off each other’s features in a naked effort to destroy each other. They peddle fake news in ways that hurt our democracy, then claim they had no idea it was happening. They use our data in illegal ways that we don’t know about. They buy an app, break promises made by the founder regarding user privacy, then pay a fine to regulators and continue on. And their misbehavior seems even worse when people consider they are so critical to the success of our economy. Since the start of 2017, the Frightful Five have been responsible for 37% of the S&P 500’s gains.

People Should Be Far More Wary

While there may be general wariness with the actions of big tech, the vast majority of people continue to make the trade: their data and attention for the company’s services. Over this past Thanksgiving, the Echo Dot was Amazon’s top-selling product on Amazon from any manufacturer in any category, with millions sold. This is because people underestimate the risk that their data will be used against them in a negative way. Most people think they are trading away some marginal ability to ignore advertisements. In fact, they are trading away their ability to control their own decision-making, whether now or in the future. This is because with enough data, a service can quantify a person's beliefs. With enough data, a service can manipulate a person's thinking. With enough data, a service can physically locate and silence a user quickly. These services are controlled by only a few powerful people with seemingly little oversight. And their power could quickly be turned to more sinister purposes. As Noam Cohen puts it in the article cited above, “if a few people make the decisions about how we communicate, shop, learn the news…do we control our own society?”

We Need New Services Based on Different Business Models

The reason people remain on these services, aside from their undervaluation of privacy, is the lack of a superior option. Users are increasingly turning to commonly available tools to protect their privacy. Adblock use is rising, with 615 million devices using it worldwide at the end of 2016. VPN use is also rising. One source says that 3 in 10 internet users had used VPNs in early 2017. People also seem increasingly willing to fight for their rights regarding the Internet. There were 22 million public comments on the FCC’s recent decision to repeal net neutrality. But these are half-measures. People can also use free software and freedom boxes and encryption. These measures are more thorough but not easy enough to catalyze a mass exodus from data collecting services. What’s more, many of these solutions sacrifice the many benefits that modern services offer. For all the discontent people feel for big tech companies, they still love the services. Grandparents love seeing photos of their grandchildren on Facebook. Tourists love that they can use Google Maps to go to new places without getting lost. People love that Spotify finds them new music tailored to their taste. As long as people undervalue their own privacy, and I don't see how they could be educated to a correct valuation other than by some tragedy, exodus will only be achieved if the promised land offers these benefits of connection and efficiency, and ideally, enhances them. Building these kinds of services takes a lot of money and a lot of interested people, so the ideal solution would make money for its creators. It could be as simple as a subscription model like Netflix. It could work like Brave, a browser that allows users to donate to content-providers using cryptocurrencies based on the amount of attention they pay. If the creators could receive money directly, they could add value to the product by protecting user data instead of collecting and selling it.

Uncertainty and Hope

I don’t know what the ideal solution is. It’s clear that it will be difficult to build and popularize. Still, I take comfort in what I see as a rising discontent with the status quo, the development of new technologies that may result in new business models, and the potential to harness these developments to direct users toward a solution that is better for individuals’ and for humanity’s freedom.

Revision 1r1 - 09 Jan 2018 - 18:00:26 - EthanMackay
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