Google farms its users the way that ants farm aphids

The Guardian - - OPINION -

An as­ton­ish­ing project is un­der way to build a “dig­i­tal time ma­chine” that will show us in fine de­tail the lives of or­di­nary Vene­tians across a thou­sand years of his­tory. It is made pos­si­ble by the per­sis­tence of the repub­lic’s bu­reau­cracy, which, when Napoleon ex­tin­guished the Repub­lic of Venice in 1797, left be­hind 80km of shelv­ing full of records of births, deaths, trades, build­ing, land own­er­ship, pri­vate let­ters, am­bas­sadors’ re­ports and even med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. All this is now to be digi­tised, cross-ref­er­enced, and an­a­lysed, and all its se­crets laid bare to pro­vide a pic­ture in un­prece­dented rich­ness and de­tail of the lives of in­di­vid­u­als and the devel­op­ment of so­ci­ety over many cen­turies. Ob­vi­ously, this is won­der­ful for his­to­ri­ans and in­deed any­body with an imag­i­na­tion alive to­day. One won­ders, though, what the Vene­tians would have made of it, had they known their lives and let­ters would be so care­fully anatomised af­ter their deaths.

Far more is known about us now, though, and in real time. The data in the Vene­tian archives was un­matched in me­dieval and even early mod­ern Europe, but it is only leg­end and scraps of hearsay com­pared to the knowledge of us ac­cu­mu­lated by the gi­ants of the dig­i­tal econ­omy – Google, Face­book, Ap­ple and Ama­zon – who all in var­i­ous ways use the data har­vested from their users to make bil­lions of dol­lars, from ad­ver­tis­ing or from di­rect sell­ing, or from some com­bi­na­tion of both. Their knowledge of our in­ti­mate lives doesn’t wait two cen­turies or more un­til we’re dead. They get it live, in real time. Some­times they know our minds be­fore we know them our­selves. It’s a sit­u­a­tion quite un­prece­dented in his­tory.

The Euro­pean com­mis­sion may be about to levy the big­gest fine in its his­tory on Google for anti-com­pet­i­tive be­hav­iour – po­ten­tially more than €1bn. This case, five years in the mak­ing, is the lat­est, and per­haps the largest, bat­tle in the strug­gle to es­tab­lish demo­cratic con­trol over the gi­ants of the dig­i­tal econ­omy. In the US, the gov­ern­ment has been cap­tured by the cor­po­ra­tions, and in China univer­sal sur­veil­lance is openly con­verted to a means of gov­ern­ment con­trol. Only the EU at­tempts to balance th­ese pow­ers to the ben­e­fit of the or­di­nary cit­i­zen.

The power and am­bi­tion of th­ese com­pa­nies is as­ton­ish­ing – Ama­zon has just an­nounced the pur­chase of the up­mar­ket gro­cery chain Whole Foods for $13.5bn, but two years ago Face­book paid even more than that to ac­quire the What­sApp mes­sag­ing ser­vice, which doesn’t have any phys­i­cal prod­uct at all. What What­sApp of­fered Face­book was an in­tri­cate and finely de­tailed trac­ery of its users’ friend­ships and so­cial lives. Face­book promised the Euro­pean com­mis­sion then that it would not link phone num­bers to Face­book iden­ti­ties, but it broke the promise al­most as soon as the deal went through. Even with­out know­ing what was in the mes­sages, the knowledge of who sent them and to whom was enor­mously re­veal­ing and still could be. What po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist, what party whip, would not want to know the makeup of the What­sApp groups in which Theresa May’s en­e­mies are cur­rently plot­ting? It may be that the value to Ama­zon of Whole Foods is not so much the 460 shops it owns, or the dis­tri­bu­tion network, but the records of which customers have pur­chased what.

Com­pe­ti­tion law ap­pears to be the only way to ad­dress th­ese im­bal­ances of power. But it is clumsy. For one thing, it is very slow com­pared to the pace of change within the dig­i­tal econ­omy. By the time a prob­lem has been ad­dressed and reme­died it may have van­ished in the mar­ket­place, to be re­placed by new abuses of power. But there is a deeper con­cep­tual prob­lem, too. Com­pe­ti­tion law as presently in­ter­preted deals with fi­nan­cial dis­ad­van­tage to con­sumers and this is not ob­vi­ous when the users of th­ese ser­vices don’t pay for them. The users of their ser­vices are not their customers. That would be the peo­ple who buy ad­ver­tis­ing from them – and Face­book and Google op­er­ate a vir­tual du­op­oly in dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing to the detri­ment of all other me­dia and en­ter­tain­ment com­pa­nies.

The prod­uct they’re sell­ing is data, and we, the users, con­vert our lives to data for the ben­e­fit of the dig­i­tal gi­ants. Just as some ants farm aphids for the hon­ey­dew that oozes from them when they feed, so Google farms us for the data that our dig­i­tal lives ex­ude. Ants keep preda­tory in­sects away from where their aphids feed; Gmail keeps the spam­mers out of our in­boxes. It doesn’t feel like a hu­man or demo­cratic re­la­tion­ship, even if both sides ben­e­fit.

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