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Are We Ready to Defend Our Freedom? Book Review: “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”

It is not often that you read a book where afterward nothing seems the same again. Like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Shoshana Zuboff’s book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, (Publisher: PublicAffairs, Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-61039-569-4), puts what we do in these times into a context and gives a focus to ongoing issues of privacy and governance with regard to the Domain Name System. This is even more astonishing as the book does not even mention the DNS, the Internet ecosystem or even Internet Governance directly.

Shoshana Zuboff describes how Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and many other Internet-based firms are forging a new form of capitalism, one which she labels “Surveillance Capitalism.” It is based on the monetizing of the digital tracking of human experience and is defined by a strategy whereby powerful corporations seek to predict (and control) our behavior as “a new market form that claims human experience as a free source of raw material for hidden commercial practices.” Zuboff writes: “Every casual search, like, and click [becomes] an asset to be tracked, parsed, and monetized by some company.” In Surveillance Capitalism, the data generated through the sale of, or even the browsing for, a product can have a higher value than the profits from the sale of the product. In the Capitalism of old, the trader sought to profit by fulfilling the needs and desires of customers. In the Surveillance Capitalism, the strategy changes. One’s behavior is data mined. Perceived needs become the focus of targeted marketing. One’s menu of consumer (and other) choices is shaped by surveillance of one’s behavior.

This predatory use of personal data is not an inevitable result of digital technology. The technology is neither good nor bad. Its ethical performance comes from how we humans decide to use it. Zuboff describes in detail the events and concepts, marketed within the guise of a utopian vision for the internet, used to drive surveillance as the “dominant” shape of capitalism, and argues that in doing so is usurping “the peoples’ right to a human future.” By helping us understand our immediate past and evaluate the present, she encourages us to define our future. Like the prophets of old, Zuboff asks us to review our ways, to act wisely and to be engaged in the pursuit of a worthy future, one secured by asking what we need to know and how we decide the path forward.

Readers with an interest in the issues surrounding the Domain Name System will quickly realize that her book is highly relevant to issues of privacy, access and governance in the DNS ecosystem. Surveillance Capitalism uses the DNS with impunity and with scant interest in the integrity of that use. For Surveillance Capitalism the DNS is more than just a tool. It seeks unfettered access to the DNS and to manipulate it. It ultimately wants access independent of governance restrictions, other than protection for its own intellectual property. The attachment is not to the DNS itself. It is to the data facilitated by the existence of the DNS. Should the means develop to replace the DNS with something more suitable to their data needs, Surveillance Capitalism would jump ship, independent of the needs of other users.

The domain name industry lives less and less on the sale and management of domains. Additional revenue services target enhanced data collection. This is creating data dependencies and struggles for control. The Whois discussion is a harbinger, an early battle, around who has what access to what data. The Whois is just the precursor of many battles to come. It is important as it sets the opening tone for more and bigger battles to come, battles around the rights and obligations of persons, entities, and even governments, as enshrined in new forms of governance and embedded in social and cultural norms.

There is a need for vigilance, awareness and engagement! Surveillance Capitalism is active in our midst and operating to influence the evolution of Internet Governance. Its leaders and their minions can be found, pressing with force, at venues like the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the various UN digital commissions. Some fear that they are attempting to appropriate initiatives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for their own their purposes. It is argued that they already behave like they own the Internet Governance agenda and do whatever they can to portray this harmful and dangerous situation as “the new normal”.

With regard to the DNS the issues on the table are no longer just security and stability. The issues include what purpose is DNS ultimately to serve. Should the role of the DNS be mainly to facilitate connectivity and access, or should its main function be the collection and monetizing of user data in ways that compromise personal privacy and security? While one might have thought that this commercial data exploitation would never be allowed to come to pass, it has come to pass. It is outpacing personal privacy, security and governance efforts to set boundaries to what is acceptable and what is not. Social media and browser interests were the first to harness this data monetization bandwagon. Telecom companies are quickly succumbing to the charm (and profits) of Surveillance Capitalism.

The domain name industry is sitting in the cross-hairs of both powerful interests pushing to exploit data access, and public interests seeking to secure privacy and security under appropriate governance and rule of law. The challenge is how to engage public and private interests in the development of appropriate governance, at all levels of governance.

Society at the global and local level is at a crisis point. The digital promise has turned for some into a digital nightmare, with the possibility that risks go viral. The key to our digital future is how we as stakeholders react to the challenges and advances of Surveillance Capitalism.

Shoshana Zuboff masterfully lays out and analyses the situation, but she is intentionally short on solutions and actions beyond general principles. Determining how to resist and move forward is not the job of a single author. The book is a call to arms, a call to us that starts with raised awareness and heightened engagement.

How can we defend our freedom and take back our future? There are some simple steps we can take:

  1. We need awareness and capacity building in empowered digital citizenship for all digital citizens so that we question and unmask the core premises of Surveillance Capitalism, the notion that their access to the digital data of users is free, with unrestricted access and use.
  2. We need to decontaminate and rehabilitate the Internet Ecosystem, freeing it from the damaging and unhealthy manifestations of Surveillance Capitalism
  3. We need to establish sustainable digital business models that put the human at their center. This is possible since the profit center of Surveillance Capitalism is the unacceptable exploitation of the data of others.
  4. Regulation will be required but we have yet to grasp the properties of a healthy regime of Internet governance. Engagement is about more than pressing for good regulation, it is about simultaneously constructing good Internet governance.
  5. Lastly, governance and regulation are good but limited. Every sustainable culture, including the culture of the Internet ecosystem, evolves a social contract where we agree on acting responsibly, with integrity, and know when to say: “Enough is enough!”

Reading the book, we also realize that the social media barons of the world, and their clever minions, represent the opposite of what they try to make us believe. The world of Surveillance Capitalism is a world of smoke and mirrors, low in integrity and trust. Social media innovations distract from real social issues. Their data mining business model is unsustainable and harmful. The amassed riches are based on valuations that come from questionable data mining, and in large part from the promise of greater future data mining. They are highly anticompetitive with adverse effects on innovation. A better tomorrow calls for greater awareness and engagement today.

Lastly, readers be warned! The book is 700 pages long. Besides people with a deep interest in these topics, others will find it a lot to digest and may object to repetitive explanations. The Zuboff book is a call to creating a future, but the length of the book is an obstacle to the clarity of that call. Many will find it a challenging read. A companion volume would be useful, one which captures the essence of the book, and feedback, in under 200 pages. One way around its length is to read parts of the book that can stand alone. These include Chapter16: on the life of young people in a digital age (a must read for all parents); Chapter 10; Pokémon; and Chapter 18 on Freedom and principles of resistance.

There is something of value in the book for everybody. One can only hope that it is read as widely as possible. The more who read it and are moved to action, the brighter our future and more secure our freedoms.

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen

Klaus has over 30 years’ practical experience in Internet governance and implementing ICTs for development and capacity building globally. He is a regular organizer and speaker at events, advisor to private, governmental and civil society organizations, lecturer, blogger and author of publications centering empowered digital citizenship, digital dignity and integrity.

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