A flood of recent analysis discusses the abuse of personal information by internet giants such as Facebook and Google. Some of these articles zero in on the basic business models of Facebook, and occasionally Google, as inherently deceptive and unethical.

But I have yet to see a proposal for any type of regulation that seems proportional to the social problem created by these new enterprises.

So here’s my modest proposal for a legislative response to surveillance capitalism1:

No company which operates an internet social network, or an internet search engine, shall be allowed to sell advertising, nor allowed to sell data collected about the service’s users.

We should also consider an additional regulation:

No company which operates an internet social network, or an internet search engine, shall be allowed to provide this service free of charge to its users.

It may not be easy to craft an appropriate legal definition of “social network” or “search engine”, and I’m not suggesting that this proposal would address all of the surveillance issues inherent in our digitally networked societies. But regulation of companies like Facebook and Google will remain ineffectual unless their current business models are prohibited.

Core competency

The myth of “free services” is widespread in our society, of course, and most people have been willing to play along with the fantasy. Yet we can now see that when it comes to search engines and social networks, this game of pretend has dangerous consequences.

In a piece from September, 2017 entitled “Why there’s nothing to like about Facebook’s ethically-challenged, troublesome business model,” Financial Post columnist Diane Francis clearly described the trick at the root of Facebook’s success:

“Facebook’s underlying business model itself is troublesome: offer free services, collect user’s private information, then monetize that information by selling it to advertisers or other entities.”

Writing in The Guardian a few days ago, John Naughton concisely summarized the corporate histories of both Facebook and Google:

“In the beginning, Facebook didn’t really have a business model. But because providing free services costs money, it urgently needed one. This necessity became the mother of invention: although in the beginning Zuckerberg (like the two Google co-founders, incidentally) despised advertising, in the end – like them – he faced up to sordid reality and Facebook became an advertising company.”

So while Facebook has grandly phrased its mission as “to make the world more open and connected”, and Google long proclaimed its mission “to organize the world’s information”, those goals had to take a back seat to the real business: helping other companies sell us more stuff.

In Facebook’s case, it has been obvious for years that providing a valuable social networking service was a secondary focus. Over and over, Facebook introduced major changes in how the service worked, to widespread complaints from users. But as long as these changes didn’t drive too many users away, and as long as the changes made Facebook a more effective partner to advertisers, the company earned more profit and its stock price soared.

Likewise, Google found a “sweet spot” with the number of ads that could appear above and beside search results without overly annoying users – while also packaging the search data for use by advertisers across the web.

A bad combination

The sale of advertising, of course, has subsidized news and entertainment media for more than a century. In recent decades, even before online publishing became dominant, some media switched to wholly-advertising-supported “free” distribution. While that fiction had many negative consequences, I believe, the danger to society was taken to another level with search engines and social networks.

A “free” print magazine or newspaper, after all, collects no data while being read.2 No computer records if and when you turn the page, how long you linger over an article, or even whether you clip an ad and stick it to your refrigerator.

Today’s “free” online services are different. Search engines collate every search by every user, so they know what people are curious about – the closest version of mass mind-reading we have yet seen. Social media not only register every click and every “Like”, but all our digital interactions with all of our “friends”.

This surveillance-for-profit is wonderfully useful for the purpose of selling us more stuff – or, more recently, for manipulating our opinions and our votes. But we should not be surprised when they abuse our confidence, since their business model drives them to betray our trust as efficiently as possible.

Effective regulation

In the flood of commentary about Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, two themes predominate. First, there is a frequently-stated wish that Facebook “respect our privacy”. Second, there are somewhat more specific calls for regulation of Facebook’s privacy settings, terms of sale of data, or policing of “bot” accounts.

Both themes strike me as naïve. Facebook may allow users a measure of privacy in that they can be permitted to hide some posts from some other users. But it is the very essence of Facebook’s business model that no user can have any privacy from Facebook itself, and Facebook can and will use everything it learns about us to help manipulate our desires in the interests of paying customers. Likewise, it is naïve to imagine that what we post on Facebook remains “our data”, since we have given it to Facebook in exchange for a service for which we pay no monetary fee.

But regulating the terms under which Facebook acquires our consent to monetize our information? This strikes me as an endlessly complicated game of whack-a-mole. The features of computerized social networks have changed and will continue to change as fast as a coder can come up with a clever new bit of software. Regulating these internal methods and operations would be a bureaucratic boondoggle.

Much simpler and more effective, I think, would be to abolish the fiction of “free” services that forms the façade of Facebook and Google. When these companies as well as new competitors3 charge an honest fee to users of social networks and search engines, because they can no longer earn money by selling ads or our data, much of the impetus to surveillance capitalism will be gone.

It costs real money to provide a platform for billions of people to share our cat videos, pictures of grandchildren, and photos of avocado toast. It also costs real money to build a data-mining machine – to sift and sort that data to reveal useful patterns for advertisers who want to manipulate our desires and opinions.

If social networks and search engines make their money honestly through user fees, they will obviously collect data that helps them improve their service and retain or gain users. But they will have no incentive to throw financial resources at data mining for other purposes.

Under such a regulation, would we still have good social network and search engine services? I have little doubt that we would.

People willingly pay for services they truly value – look back at how quickly people adopted the costly use of cell phones. But when someone pretends to offer us a valued service “free”, we endure a host of consequences as we eagerly participate in the con.

Photos at top: Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (left) and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO. Left photo, “A surprise guest at TED 2010, Sergey spoke openly about Google’s new posture with China,” by Steve Jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons. Right photo, “Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Facebook, USA, captured during the session ‘The Next Digital Experience’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 30, 2009”, by World Economic Forum, via Wikimedia Commons.

 


NOTES

1 The term “surveillance capitalism” was introduced by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in a perceptive article in Monthly Review, July 2014.

2 Thanks to Toronto photographer and writer Diane Boyer for this insight.

3 There would be a downside to stipulating that social networks or search engines do not provide their services to users free of charge, in that it would be difficult for a new service to break into the market. One option might be a size-based exemption, allowing, for example, a company to offer such services free until it reaches 10 million users.