Cory Doctorow comes out in favor of breaking up Big Tech: “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism”

Tech journalist, author, and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow has just freely released what we can call either a very long essay, or a very short book, “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism”, in which he comes out firmly in favor of breaking up the large tech companies including Google, Facebook and Apple. Doctorow’s position is noteworthy in particular because of how it represents the ongoing shift of the techno-libertarian community, which for years took the position that government shouldn’t regulate tech companies or the internet, to the opposite position of “society, using the mechanism of government, should aggressively break up Big Tech”. Doctorow is former staff member of, and currently a special advisor to, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the earliest digital rights advocacy groups in the U.S.

The essay pitches itself partly as Doctorow expressing his differences of opinion with sociologist Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), however I’d caution readers to take those sections with a grain of salt. Zuboff’s training is in social psychology, which means she’s trained to understand how people, and groups of people, think and can be persuaded to think. Doctorow’s background is in journalism and as a science fiction author, and some of his attempts to rebut Zuboff come off to me as bizarre. As one example, on persuasion, Doctorow writes this:

Google’s algorithm is often tricked into serving disinformation as a prominent search result. But in these cases, Google isn’t persuading people to change their minds; it’s just presenting something untrue as fact when the user has no cause to doubt it.

A social psychologist would likely disagree with Doctorow’s dismissal here – repetition of false claims has been scientifically demonstrated to increase the rate at which people believe them, so by definition, serving lies as search results IS in fact “changing people’s minds”.

I’ll paste some Google-relevant extracts from Doctor’s essay below. The entire essay is freely available at OneZero. Emphasis below is mine.

- Bruce


How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism

One example of how monopolism aids in persuasion is through dominance: Google makes editorial decisions about its algorithms that determine the sort order of the responses to our queries. If a cabal of fraudsters have set out to trick the world into thinking that the Brooklyn Bridge is 5,800 feet long, and if Google gives a high search rank to this group in response to queries like “How long is the Brooklyn Bridge?” then the first eight or 10 screens’ worth of Google results could be wrong. And since most people don’t go beyond the first couple of results — let alone the first page of results — Google’s choice means that many people will be deceived.

Google’s dominance over search — more than 86% of web searches are performed through Google — means that the way it orders its search results has an outsized effect on public beliefs. Ironically, Google claims this is why it can’t afford to have any transparency in its algorithm design: Google’s search dominance makes the results of its sorting too important to risk telling the world how it arrives at those results lest some bad actor discover a flaw in the ranking system and exploit it to push its point of view to the top of the search results. There’s an obvious remedy to a company that is too big to audit: break it up into smaller pieces.


There is one way in which targeted advertising uniquely benefits those advocating for socially unacceptable causes: It is invisible. Racism is widely geographically dispersed, and there are few places where racists — and only racists — gather…

Targeted ads solve this problem: On the internet, every ad unit can be different for every person, meaning that you can buy ads that are only shown to people who appear to be Nazis and not to people who hate Nazis…

These layers of indirection between advertisers and publishers serve as moral buffers: Today’s moral consensus is largely that publishers shouldn’t be held responsible for the ads that appear on their pages because they’re not actively choosing to put those ads there. Because of this, Nazis are able to overcome significant barriers to organizing their movement.


Google’s search dominance isn’t a matter of pure merit: The company has leveraged many tactics that would have been prohibited under classical, pre-Ronald-Reagan antitrust enforcement standards to attain its dominance... Many of the company’s key divisions, such as the advertising technology of DoubleClick, violate the historical antitrust principle of structural separation, which forbade firms from owning subsidiaries that competed with their customers. Railroads, for example, were barred from owning freight companies that competed with the shippers whose freight they carried.

If we’re worried about giant companies subverting markets by stripping consumers of their ability to make free choices, then vigorous antitrust enforcement seems like an excellent remedy. If we’d denied Google the right to effect its many mergers, we would also have probably denied it its total search dominance. Without that dominance, the pet theories, biases, errors (and good judgment, too) of Google search engineers and product managers would not have such an outsized effect on consumer choice.


Whether it’s Google being used as a location tracking tool by local law enforcement across the U.S. or the use of social media tracking by the Department of Homeland Security to build dossiers on participants in protests against Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s family separation practices, any hard limits on surveillance capitalism would hamstring the state’s own surveillance capability. Without Palantir, Amazon, Google, and other major tech contractors, U.S. cops would not be able to spy on Black people, ICE would not be able to manage the caging of children at the U.S. border, and state welfare systems would not be able to purge their rolls by dressing up cruelty as empiricism and claiming that poor and vulnerable people are ineligible for assistance.

Monopolism is key to the project of mass state surveillance.


One of the consequences of tech’s regulatory capture is that it can shift liability for poor security decisions onto its customers and the wider society. It is absolutely normal in tech for companies to obfuscate the workings of their products, to make them deliberately hard to understand, and to threaten security researchers who seek to independently audit those products.

IT is the only field in which this is practiced: No one builds a bridge or a hospital and keeps the composition of the steel or the equations used to calculate load stresses a secret. It is a frankly bizarre practice that leads, time and again, to grotesque security defects on farcical scales, with whole classes of devices being revealed as vulnerable long after they are deployed in the field and put into sensitive places.


Competitive markets would weaken the companies’ lobbying muscle by reducing their profits and pitting them against each other in regulatory forums. It would give customers other places to go to get their online services. It would make the companies small enough to regulate and pave the way to meaningful penalties for breaches. It would let engineers with ideas that challenged the surveillance orthodoxy raise capital to compete with the incumbents.


To the extent that we are willing to let Big Tech police itself — rather than making Big Tech small enough that users can leave bad platforms for better ones and small enough that a regulation that simply puts a platform out of business will not destroy billions of users’ access to their communities and data — we build the case that Big Tech should be able to block its competitors


Big Tech’s concentration currently means that their inaction on harassment, for example, leaves users with an impossible choice: absent themselves from public discourse by, say, quitting Twitter or endure vile, constant abuse. Big Tech’s over-collection and over-retention of data results in horrific identity theft. And their inaction on extremist recruitment means that white supremacists who livestream their shooting rampages can reach an audience of billions.


If we’re going to break Big Tech’s death grip on our digital lives, we’re going to have to fight monopolies. That may sound pretty mundane and old-fashioned, something out of the New Deal era…

But trustbusters once strode the nation, brandishing law books, terrorizing robber barons, and shattering the illusion of monopolies’ all-powerful grip on our society. The trustbusting era could not begin until we found the political will — until the people convinced politicians they’d have their backs when they went up against the richest, most powerful men in the world.

Could we find that political will again?


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