26th August 2019
In his trademark disingenuous response to the latest wave of massacres, Donald Trump has identified the internet as both the cause and, more insidiously, the solution to the spread of rightwing domestic terrorism.
Ignoring his own hate-filled social media feeds and fervent embrace of gun denial-ism, the US president has set his sites on the “dark recesses” of the internet, where hatred foments through “gruesome and grisly” video games that celebrate violence.
But in the same breath* Trump has directed law enforcement agencies at a local, state and federal level to work with big tech “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike”.
Rather than restricting the sale of guns, Trump puts his faith in technology to be able to predict, identify and thus prevent violence before it happens. In a dangerous world, it will be the collection and analysis of our personal data that will keep us all safe.
In pulling this rein, Trump is tapping into a government playbook that goes all the way back to the 9/11 attacks and, as Shoshana Zuboff argues in her opus The Age of Surveillance Capital, has had a profound effect on the way the internet has developed.
In the name of national security, digital platforms including Facebook and Google were not only permitted, but actively encouraged, to collect as much information about us as they possibly could. Not just a record of our online purchases, but our online site visits, the contents of our searches, our emails, our phone calls.
As the web evolved so did the capacity of websites to capture more and more about us; what Zuboff calls “behavioural surplus” – the incidental information that can be collected by embedding codes to track our journeys around the web, or capturing the routes of our mapping service or logging each interaction we have with Siri.
This data has become the natural resource of the digital age, freely provided, though rarely consciously handed over, the terms embedded in click boxes that provide access to yet another free app platform. With this trove and the rapidly increasing capacity to collect and sort data, these platforms match our activity with other users to create lookalike profiles that purport to predict our desires and weaknesses.
This is fodder for any business that wants to sell us something, or convince us of an idea or even replace our functions with those of a machine. By purporting to understand who we are, and thus predict what we will do next, our relationship with the web has transformed from consumer to product.
But this same technology allows extremists to seek each other out, to target vulnerable individuals. It is deployed by gaming companies to keep users hooked, desensitising them to these killing games. It is these tools, also, that destroy the public square where differences can be mediated and rhetoric moderated.
And access to this data is rich pickings for governments that want to protect their own secrets from whistleblowers and restrict the work of journalists – all in the name of our safety and security.
As awareness of the workings of this new web grows, evidence is building that this is not an internet we are completely comfortable with. This week’s Essential Report asked people for feedback on the broad thrust of the digital platforms inquiry released last month by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
While its focus was the impact of Facebook and Google on the Australian media, its discussion and findings were broader, going to the way these companies build and maintain their market position.
Attempting to capture the gist of the sometimes technical recommendations, I put these question into the field with some trepidation: would people simple shrug their shoulders – or worse, have no view to report? Instead we found a public united in the view that the power of big tech has reached a tipping point.
Four in five of us are concerned about the way these companies are using our data and support tighter regulations. Three-quarters believe a specialist body is needed to oversee big tech. Just one-third of us are now prepared to wave the use of our data through.
These findings indicate that the public is prepared to support the Morrison government if it makes good on its early promise to rein in big tech in the interests of consumers and citizens – and the media that is struggling to serve them.
Of course the industry lobbyists will warn of overreach and argue for self-regulation rather than government oversight. Much like Trump, they will line themselves up as the defenders of the public interest, turning a blind eye to their own complicity in creating a climate where safety is compromised.
But the public sentiment crosses partisan and demographic lines with a clear message: the time for regulation is upon us. As I argue in my book, the honeymoon where anything online was considered a self-evident good is now over; just like us it can be good and bad; and just like the rest of the world we have a right for our governments to set some ground rules.
• Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential. His book Webtopia: The Worldwide Wreck of Tech and How to Make the Net Work is out now
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