Thursday, May 26

Deleting some ‘cookies’ is not enough. Technology companies have to go further | Ideas

Google's office in Beijing, China, on March 10, 2021.
Google’s office in Beijing, China, on March 10, 2021.Feature China/Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

For privacy activists, 2021 is providing one victory after another. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, announced in March that it would stop tracking users when they browse the web. The measure is part of the overall decision to phase out the use of cookies from external companies; an old but controversial technology, increasingly blamed for cultural permissiveness when it comes to sharing data.

Instead of tracking individual users through the cookies, the company plans to leverage machine learning to group users into cohorts based on behavioral similarities. The announcements will be directed to those groups, not to each person. Alphabet will still need various pieces of data to place the user in the appropriate cohort, but advertisers will not have to touch their individual browser.

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In April, Apple introduced a major update to its operating system that improves the tracking of its users by third-party application developers such as Facebook. Users must explicitly agree to have their data collected. Although Facebook initially opposed the move, it has since backed down and has even promised to develop “privacy-enhancing” ad technologies that are less reliant on user data.

I wonder if these surprising victories for the privacy movement will not turn out to be Pyrrhic victories, at least from the point of view of democracy. Rather than grapple with the political power of Big Tech, the industry’s biggest critics have always focused on holding them accountable for their numerous violations of privacy and data protection laws. This strategy assumed that such legal violations would continue indefinitely. Now that Alphabet – and perhaps soon Facebook – is rushing to use machine learning to create personalized but privacy-protecting ads, the question arises as to whether targeting so much criticism was the right choice. Terrified by the pervasiveness and perpetuation of “surveillance capitalism,” have we made it too easy for tech companies to meet our expectations? Have we wasted a decade of activism that should have been dedicated to crafting explanations of why we should fear techs?

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Something similar is likely to happen in other areas marked by the recent moral panic over digital technologies. Faced with the growing fears of hoaxes and digital addiction, the large companies in the sector will insist on what I call solutionism and will present digital platforms with new technologies capable of offering a tailored, secure and completely controllable experience. As usual, Apple is leading the way and is already offering a series of curated news and tools to measure productivity and digital well-being. In February, Facebook also began testing a system that adds a tag to its members’ posts on climate change that redirects to its dedicated climate web portal. Even the hoax problem may be easier to handle than you might think.

The fledgling “human technology” movement, surely loaded with good intentions, has many chances of succumbing to a similar Pyrrhic victory: the tech giants will undoubtedly find a way to act ethically while remaining profitable. The irony is that, the more the technology sector is criticized for harming privacy or being unethical, the more public legitimacy it acquires just by showing its ability to respect the principles that its detractors value so much. The bottom line is that we need a different and broader critique of the tech industry. Is there a better way to explain the enormous damage that your solution mentality does to society? Yes. I think we have been looking for the reviews in the wrong places. We have thought that surveillance and hoaxes were what economists would call the “externalities” that accompany good, forward-thinking, and innovative business practices.

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But is this hypothesis true? It’s about time we looked beyond the pretty words of technology innovation and asked who is allowed to innovate – and under what conditions – in the current system. No matter how much creative disruption they promise us, the technology sector offers an unappetizing dish always with the same ingredients: users, platforms, advertisers and application developers.

The institutional imagination of the technology industry does not admit other actors that can contribute to shaping the socially beneficial uses of digital infrastructures. Wikipedia aside, there are no digital equivalents of the varied and innovative institutions that emerged to meet humanity’s communication and educational needs: the library, the museum, the post office. Who knows what other types of institutions are possible in the digital environment? Instead of finding out, politicians have left this exploration in the hands of Big Tech. Instead of building infrastructures that facilitate such large-scale experiments, they settle for existing infrastructures, run (often as paid services) by companies.

Of course, the main members of the sector want to make sure that any new digital institution is born in the form of startup or at least as an application, something that they can incorporate and make profitable through their platforms and operating systems. For this reason, the digital environment is not as innovative as it seems: it abhors any institution and association that does not behave according to the rules established by its main intermediaries. The industry has a tremendous talent for creating applications for museums and libraries, but it is terrible at figuring out what its digital equivalent might be.

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Who knows, maybe this attitude is the new start-up, the institutional response that solutionism offers to each problem. But why lock every good new idea in the straitjacket of the start-up? In most cases, this straitjacket imposes its own obligations: to make users profitable; collect data; sell subscriptions. Why limit yourself to these options? What we want is something really new: an institution that knows what parts of current laws and regulations to put on hold – as the library does with intellectual property rights, for example – to make the most of the intrinsic potential of the digital technologies in the name of a great public good. Don’t be fooled by the tech giants’ recent respect for privacy. After all, its monopolistic control of our imagination — which prevents us from seeing technology not as applied science, but as a powerful political institution to transform other institutions — is what constitutes the biggest problem for democracy. And until we make that imagination our own again – instead of overdosing on optimistic solutionism – we won’t be able to tame them.

Evgeny Morozov, Doctor of History of Science from Harvard University, is an essayist and specialist in technological issues. Founder and editor of The Syllabus, he is the author of ‘The madness of technological solutionism’ (Clave Intelectual, 2015).

Translation by María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia.

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