Sep 25, 2017

Taplin on Google, Facebook and "surveillance capitalism"

Photo illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Jonathan Taplin has become a vocal critic of big tech — primarily Facebook and Google — arguing their use of personal data is undermining privacy as well as broader societal and economic norms.

Why we care: Taplin, director emeritus of the Innovation Lab at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, was among the early voices raising concerns about the biggest tech companies. His recent book is one of several that examine their dominance.

He speaks Tuesday at a DC privacy event, where I'll also be moderating a panel. Here are highlights from my chat with Taplin:

What do you plan to talk about Tuesday?

I'll be taking the frame of my book that the tech monopolies have created a winner-takes-all framework, but really looking at how that affects privacy. Google and Facebook are in the surveillance capitalism business. Their sole reason for being is to vacuum up as much data on 2 billion people as they can.

Yet plenty of people don't seem to be bothered by the data collection.

The general perception is that young people don't care a bit about privacy and they're more than willing to trade their data for knowing what their friends are doing. I think that's really wrong. All you have to do is look at the rise of ad blockers. There's an astonishing growth in people putting ad blockers on. This idea that programmatic advertising is following you around is creeping out a lot of people.

Then you think about where it goes down the line. Consumer Reports says how you get car insurance isn't just about how you drive; it's about where you drive. That's all determined by geolocation data.

The accelerometer on a smartphone that tells you how many steps you climbed can sense tremors, an indicator for Parkinson's Disease. That data can be sold.

Then you look at what Alibaba is doing with Sesame Credit, a social credit system. It overlays your basic credit profile with your social media behavior and gives you a score. If a young man is playing video games for 5 hours a day, his social credit will go down. If a young woman is posting political content on WeChat, her score will go down. If you cross the street in Shanghai and get caught jaywalking by a surveillance camera, it goes down. It's a means for creating social compliance. People are using [the scores] for dating apps, to show they are sociable, marriage-able young people.

What about targeted content?

The only reason fake news can happen is [because Facebook] has these extraordinary profiles on 2 billion people. So it can precisely target ads to an audience. On the political side, I've been calling for them to disclose exactly who's paying for advertising and where it's going to come from. Facebook's announcement on transparency there a good step in the right direction.

What's the answer? Stronger privacy regulations?

GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] goes into effect in the EU in 2018. That's an existential threat to the current business model of Google and Facebook. It will force them to move from a system where just by signing on to Facebook, you've given consent for them to use all your data. The new idea is, you have to opt-in to give them permission to use your data. All of your data, not just "sensitive" data.

That's a profoundly different system than they're working with today. A lot of people will decide not to opt-in, even if they get special benefits.

Do you think the U.S. should go that far?

The big question for Washington is, does the bill Rep. Marsha Blackburn is putting forth go forward? I'd like to see the U.S. go as far as GDPR. But the bill Blackburn has put forth is still in work stages.

Should a government agency oversee internet platforms, like the FCC oversees telecom providers?

Why can't the FTC do that? The FTC has been completely toothless when it comes to the internet platforms....The FTC oversees advertising. If you look at [the companies'] revenue numbers, 97% of revenue is from advertising. That's the business they're in.

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