“Data sharing,” for instance, sounds like a positive development, streamlining the bulky bureaucracies of government so the public can access goods and services faster. But access goes both ways. If someone is marked “risky” in one arena, that stigma follows him around much more efficiently, streamlining marginalization. A leading Europe-based advocate for workers’ data rights described how she was denied a bank loan despite having a high income and no debt, because the lender had access to her health file, which showed that she had a tumor.27 In the United States, data fusion centers are one of the most pernicious sites of the New Jim Code, coordinating “data-sharing among state and local police, intelligence agencies, and private companies”28 and deepening what Stop LAPD Spying Coalition calls the stalker state. Like other techy euphemisms, “fusion” recalls those trendy restaurants where food looks like art. But the clientele of such upscale eateries is rarely the target of data fusion centers that terrorize the residents of many cities.
If private companies are creating public policies by other means, then I think we should stop calling ourselves “users.” Users get used. We are more like unwitting constituents who, by clicking submit, have authorized tech giants to represent our interests. But there are promising signs that the tide is turning.
According to a recent survey, a growing segment of the public (55 percent, up from 45 percent) wants more regulation of the tech industry, saying that it does more to hurt democracy and free speech than help.29 And company executives are admitting more responsibility for safeguarding against hate speech and harassment on their platforms. For example, Facebook hired thousands more people on its safety and security team and is investing in automated tools to spot toxic content. Following Russia’s disinformation campaign using Facebook ads, the company is now “proactively finding and suspending coordinated networks of accounts and pages aiming to spread propaganda, and telling the world about it when it does. The company has enlisted fact-checkers to help prevent fake news from spreading as broadly as it once did.”
In November 2018, Zuckerberg held a press call to announce the formation of a “new independent body” that users could turn to if they wanted to appeal a decision made to take down their content. But many observers criticize these attempts to address public concerns as not fully reckoning with the political dimensions of the company’s private decisions. Reporter Kevin Roose summarizes this governance behind closed doors:
Shorter version of this call: Facebook is starting a judicial branch to handle the overflow for its executive branch, which is also its legislative branch, also the whole thing is a monarchy.
The co-director of the AI Now Research Institute, Kate Crawford, probes further:
Will Facebook’s new Supreme Court just be in the US? Or one for every country where they operate? Which norms and laws rule? Do execs get to overrule the decisions? Finally, why stop at user content? Why not independent oversight of the whole system?”
The “ruthless code of secrecy” that enshrouds Silicon Valley is one of the major factors fueling public distrust.33 So, too, is the rabid appetite of big tech to consume all in its path, digital and physical real estate alike. “There is so much of life that remains undisrupted.” As one longtime tech consultant to companies including Apple, IBM, and Microsoft put it, “For all intents and purposes, we’re only 35 years into a 75-or 80-year process of moving from analog to digital. The image of Silicon Valley as Nirvana has certainly taken a hit, but the reality is that we the consumers are constantly voting for them.”34 The fact is, the stakes are too high, the harms too widespread, the incentives too enticing, for the public to accept the tech industry’s attempts at self- regulation.
It is revealing, in my view, that many tech insiders choose a more judicious approach to tech when it comes to raising their own kids.
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