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Surveillance Capitalist in Chief

Co-authored by Klaus Stoll and Professor Sam Lanfranco.

Surveillance capitalism monetizes private data that it collects without consent of the individuals concerned, data to analyze and sell to advertisers and opinion-makers. There was always an intricate relationship between governments and surveillance capitalists. Governments have the duty to protect their citizens from the excesses of surveillance capitalism. On the other hand, governments use that data, and surveillance capitalism’s services and techniques.

Donald Trump just outed himself as Surveillance Capitalist in Chief. Social media, as we know it only exists because it is one of the main sources of data, revenue, and profits for surveillance capitalism. It is also Donald Trump’s much beloved and used bully pulpit that allows him to reach 80.5 million people in an instant.

Why is Trump attacking it by alleging that Twitter was stifling his freedom of speech? Why has he followed that by signing a likely legally unenforceable executive order that empowers federal regulators to crack down on social media companies that allegedly censor political speech or exhibit political bias?

The inconvenient truth is that surveillance capitalism is incompatible with the truth. Whilst pretending to serve millions, social platform business practices have been created not with the interest of users, but as ever more effective private data harvesters in the service of a commercial and political elite. In truth, they care little about the truth of what users say or receive. They care about their return on investment.

Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act protects social media companies from liability for the content that users post on their platforms, unlike other media who are held accountable for their content. This does not exempt social media companies from all responsibility for the veracity of content. Everybody on the Internet, be they private individuals, corporate companies, or President of the United States, have rights and responsibilities.

Trump has the right to free speech, and he is also responsible for what he says, its veracity and that it does not harm others. If he is unable to express his opinions responsibly, it falls to those whose platforms he uses to act responsible and flag his content with the intent to prevent harm from falsehoods. This is part of the give and take within the freedom of speech.

Such an intervention does not limit Trump’s free speech. His opinion is still fully visible and unredacted. When its veracity is questionable or false, the platform to flag that promotes user due diligence, a wider exercise of responsible free speech, and a generally more knowledgeable public dialogue.

Trump’s response to Twitter’s actions is to clothe his unfettered lack of veracity in the wrappings of free speech. The irony of Trump’s Executive Order is that Twitter could become required to remove such postings of questionable veracity, rather than just flag them for due diligence.

Twitter’s response is a “violation” of the first principle of surveillance capitalism: Separate what is morally and ethically inseparable. Separate rights from responsibilities. Separate data ownership from privacy. Separate falsehood from consequences, all in the name of surveillance capitalism’s profits.

Trump needs a social media bully pulpit that frees him from any concerns about anybody or anything except himself and his interests, to win the next election.

While Twitter pursues baby steps by flagging Trump’s postings, social media must choose which path to follow. The whole Internet ecosystem must choose which path to follow. How do we protect the rights and responsibilities of free speech, promote the veracity of content, and protect user privacy?

Social media have become dominant players in this area of the Internet and have a major role to play. How does society balance the private interests of surveillance capitalism and a public good that includes free and responsible speech, veracity of content and user privacy? Surveillance capitalism, with its exploitive business model and associated use by allied political actors, will opt for their responsibility-free privileges and unbridled profits. Others, in defense of the public interest and the integrity of the individual, will fight for the Internet as free and unbiased Network of Networks dedicated to serving the common good.

The fight over the path forward will be long, costly, and turbulent. Those who demand truth and integrity in social media, endanger surveillance capitalism’s business model with its storehouses of data, money, and power. Drawing on Trump’s unfortunate Tweet, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” on the Internet, that looting started two decades ago with social media warehousing and exploiting private date. Hopefully, with rightful and responsible free speech, veracity and engaged citizenship, we can get beyond the data looting and restore dignity to the role of the Internet as a Network of Networks operating in the public good, without having ended up where “the shooting starts.”

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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