I turned down a chance to spy on myself for Google. This was a real offer: Google, picking my address at random (or so it says) offered me a modest sum of money if I would let them install a monitor on my computer that would report on everything I did online.
Google claimed it wanted to better understand what users do online so as to provide a better Internet experience, or something to that effect. It wasn’t hard for me to turn this offer down, despite Google sending me two letters and having someone call me on my home phone. I was not gentle in turning down the offer but, so far, my Internet connection has not been cut off in revenge.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the real reason for Google taking a personal interest in me and, presumably, untold thousands of others: Advertising.
Google evidently seeks further refinements in the algorithms it uses to “tailor” advertising to its Gmail and other users, based on what you are reading or the content of your e-mail. And likely for other, more nefarious purposes. It is disquieting how accepted corporate breaches of privacy seem to be accepted. A son-in-law of a friend, prompted by being asked what he does for a living, actually saw himself as providing a necessary service when he explained how he works for a technology company to tailor advertising to the profile of a user, complaining that non-tailored advertising “would be a waste” — for the recipient of the advertising!
We’ve gone far down a slippery slope when being bombarded by corporate advertising is considered a public service.
This is simply one logical outgrowth of the concept that corporations shouldn’t be taxed. Bus stops, building walls, the insides and outsides of public transportation vehicles, even the sidewalks, are crammed with advertising — city governments ask them to buy advertising space instead of taxing them. National governments borrow from the wealthy and from corporations instead of taxing them; less so can local governments, given the damocles’ sword that corporations can dangle. Tax us? We’ll just move our factory. Voilà! No more pesky taxes to pay.
The ‘right’ to do whatever you want to others
There is no reason to expect technology companies to act any different from those in older industries. It’s not surprising that many Silicon Valley millionaires style themselves as libertarians: What more fundamental “right” could there be for such people than the “right” to be left alone, i.e., to not pay taxes or submit to regulations. Never mind that their newly minted piles of money are built on infrastructure created by government agencies and paid for by taxpayers. The Internet was invented in a Pentagon laboratory; the World Wide Web in a European research laboratory. Global positioning satellites, products of government space programs, are the basis of many a private profit.
The working people whose taxes paid for these technologies aren’t receiving renumeration, but Silicon Valley millionaires certainly are.
So it’s more than a little hypocritical for eight technology companies (AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo) to suddenly declare opposition to government spying programs. The eight corporations grandly call for limiting governments’ authority to collect users’ information; for oversight and accountability; transparency about government demands; respecting the free flow of information; and international treaties to harmonize privacy rules.
It is not beyond notice that these corporations said nothing on this topic until Edward Snowden provided the world with details of spying programs by the U.S. National Security Administration, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters and others. Indeed, the president of a lobbying group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, admitted in an interview with The Guardian that the eight companies are motivated by a fear of losing business in the wake of revelations of their routine facilitation of U.S. government spying.
The extent to which they have lost some of their public standing due to the uncovering of their cozy relations with spying agencies has resulted in this public-relations effort. Nonetheless, Silicon Valley millionaires’ libertarian principles hasn’t stopped them from using “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which has very little to do with trade and much to do with tightening corporate control over society) to get some of their fondest wishes snuck in through the back door.
Technology companies are well represented among the 605 corporate lobbyists who have access to the otherwise secret Trans-Pacific Partnership text, through their own executives and through organizations such as their Information Technology Industry Council.
Why is corporate spying different than government spying?
There is not one word in the jeremiad about privacy from corporate spying. Facebook and some other social-media websites collect more personal information than does the NSA. These torrents of personal information have one core use — to be monetized by Facebook and its cohorts. Advertisers would love to have your personal information in order that they can tailor the advertisements shown you, and follow you with their ads whenever you are online. The more information you willingly hand over to social-media networks, the more they are going to profit from you and the less privacy you have.
Google has decided to supplement its data gathering through direct spying conducted by software directly installed on your home computer. The ability to profit from your detailed personal information by selling it to advertisers and who knows whom else is valuable enough to Google that it is willing to part with minuscule crumbs from its cash hoard to induce you to provide it to them. Maybe next year, Google will offer a small payment if you’ll provide a DNA sample. Many a pharmaceutical company would like to have such information and we should not fall out of our chairs in shock if the libertarian heroes of Silicon Valley are willing to get it for them.
We are outraged by government spying. As we should be. Why, however, is there pervasive silence over corporate spying? Big Data is watching you, and is likely more efficient at it than Big Brother. Is it because capitalist ideology has so inculcated the world with the idea that government is always bad and the private sector is always good? Is it because that ideology’s insistence that creating a profit is the sum of human existence, regardless of who is hurt? It it because corporate domination of every sphere of life has become so taken for granted that it is no more noticed than the air we breath? Is because everything of human creation is being reduced to a commodity, even our own privacy?
Government spying and corporate spying lie along the same continuum. Government is not some disembodied entity floating above society; it is a reflection of the most influential and powerful entities and groups within a given society. The largest industrialists and financiers are those most powerful in a capitalist country — governments thus act on behalf of those interests in opposition to the interests of the working people who comprise the vast majority.
The world system of capitalism requires a center; that center, the United States, necessarily goes the furthest in accommodating these elite interests. It is then no surprise that so much of the spying conducted by U.S. spying agencies concentrates on gleaning industrial and trade secrets from other countries and on suppressing domestic peaceful political dissent. The technology companies are among the beneficiaries, making their sudden privacy advocacy naked hypocrisy, nothing more. I’ll no more spy for Google than for the NSA.
Sounds like a psychological condition experiment to me. Google is already spying on the the sites we visit – that’s how they determine which pop-up ads to inflict on us. This is a very common conditioning technique – to first subject you to dehumanizing invasions of your privacy and then try to get you to consent to it.
One thing I hate about Gmail is that you have to turn on your cookies to get it to work, an obvious boon to snooping. If any readers can tell me how to get around that, I’m all ears. I used to use the e-mail service provided by my ISP, but that was discontinued, forcing me to migrate to a commercial service. At a minimum, you can block the pop-up ads (which I do) depending on what browser you are using. The better solution, of course, would be a reversal the privatization of the Internet and an expansion of the commons.
I just discovered your insightful blog, and thank you for sharing… I know that Big Data & Big Brother are watching (I stayed away from Twitter, Face Book, LinkIn…) but I think it would be hard to quantify a human if you are always maturing learning about the reality. No one will know your secrets if you keep them in your head, for instance. And real communication should be done also in person. You can also confuse them with false data whenever you can.
“Is because everything of human creation is being reduced to a commodity, even our own privacy?”
Yes. That is the core principle of capitalism, is it not?