The recent revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica have sent the mainstream media into a frenzy. Politicians and commentators alike have bemoaned the firm's ‘irresponsible’ use of social media data for the purposes of creating ‘misleading’ political advertisements tailored (loosely) to individual users.
The attention given to Cambridge Analytica has also shone further light into the murky inner workings of Facebook. Through rather dubious means, the Silicon Valley giant helped provide Cambridge Analytica with the user data of around 50 million people.
Many are now shocked to realise that their personal data is being automatically harvested and auctioned off to shady firms, where it is used for god-knows-what purposes. This has resulted in many users deleting their Facebook accounts and asking others to do the same. Hence the spread of the #deleteFacebook and #boycottFacebook hashtags on Twitter.
As a result of the ensuing outrage, Facebook stock value dropped (at its lowest point) by $58 billion. Its billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has been lambasted over his handling of the situation.
The Facebook founder was even hauled to Washington recently, where he faced a painfully awkward grilling by Congressional committees. The main outcome, however, was only to prove that Zuckerberg is even more robotic than the computers his employees code.
This is not the first time that the sinister nature of a modern tech monopoly has been exposed, however - and it will likely not be the last. We must not forget that the other major tech monopoly whose services dominate so much of the internet, Google, is just as eager to collect ordinary people’s personal data. And, as Edward Snowden revealed, the search engine and email provider is happy to help the US state spy on its citizens using this data.
Those calling for a consumer boycott of Facebook are justified in their concern about the lack of control they exercise over their private information.
But today’s world of ‘big data’ cannot be so easily opted-out of. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Microsoft and Apple together own and control most internet services and consumer software platforms.
Consider also how ubiquitous social media has become for helping people keep in touch with others and organise events, etc. Leaving social media, these days, can be akin to self-imposed exile or exclusion from society.
For example, most employers and businesses make use of the aforementioned platforms when assessing prospective candidates. The absence of any online information may make recruiters wary about hiring those who have deleted their social media presence.
Simply deleting one's online accounts does not address the root cause of this problem. Nor does it have the potential to be particularly impactful. Indeed, at the time of writing, boycott Facebook hashtags had been used by around 50,000 people - hardly a drop in the bucket even if all of them left. Zuckerberg himself has said that he has not noticed a significant drop in users as a result of the recent scandal.
The fall in Facebook's share value, meanwhile, was only fleeting. Despite the chief executive’s mechanical performance before the House and Senate committees, investors’ concerns were apparently soothed enough for company stock prices to bounce back up. Facebook and its boss had, in the eyes of the capitalists, weathered the storm.
So what is the alternative?
Some have suggested that social media data should be considered a commodity, belonging to individual users. Instead of giving this data away to giant tech firms for free (in exchange for services like search engines and social networking), it has been proposed that online users should in fact be paid by Google, Facebook, etc. After all, these companies are - in turn - making enormous profits from using our information to entice advertisers.
“We are all digital labourers, helping make possible the fortunes generated by firms like Google and Facebook,” the Economist magazine suggests, commenting on a recently released economics paper. “[Our] data becomes part of the firm's capital, and, as such, a fearsome source of competitive advantage.”
“To tackle these problems,” the journal continues, “[the authors of the paper] have a radical proposal.”
“Rather than being regarded as capital, data should be treated as labour—and, more specifically, regarded as the property of those who generate such information…
“In such a world, user data might be sold multiple times, to multiple firms...Payments to users for their data would help spread the wealth generated by AI…
“Effective negotiation with internet firms might require collective action: and the formation, perhaps, of a ‘data-labour union’.”
Online data, however, is not a commodity being produced by users. Ultimately, the only real commodities being produced in this scenario are those being advertised to the consumers on these platforms.
It is not social media users, therefore, who create value (through their data), but the highly-skilled workers employed in the major tech monopolies (through their programming and code, etc.). They are the real source of Silicon Valley’s profits - and it is they who must be unionised and organised in the struggle against the unscrupulous and nefarious practices of the tech oligarchs.
The main role of monolithic firms like Google and Facebook is to provide an additional platform for advertising the goods and services of other businesses. They do not sell data to advertisers, but rather they use the plethora of information they gather about us to help target their adverts more effectively. This makes their platforms a more attractive prospect than traditional forms of advertising in newspapers, on TV, etc.
All the socially useful functions (for networking, organising, etc.) provided by Facebook et al. are merely a byproduct of this ultimate aim - to make profits from advertising.
Advertising goes hand-in-hand with capitalist competition. The capitalists have always had to find ways of beating their competitors, enticing consumers away from rival products, and encouraging people to part with their money.
With the development of capitalism historically, and the associated increase in the division of labour within society, advertising and marketing has become an enormous industry in its own right.
Ultimately, advertising is just another necessary cost of production for the capitalists, like transport or retail. And, in today’s online world, it is the big tech companies like Google and Facebook that dominate advertising, through the platforms they create.
The whole business strategy of these social media providers is orientated towards establishing a monopoly position.
The tech giants generally make their services freely accessible to internet users in order to attract as many people as possible. This allows them to gather as much data as possible. In addition, it expands the captive audience - the potential market - for advertising on their platforms, making them an even more enticing medium for businesses looking to sell their goods.
Google, for example, started off simply as a search engine. But its advertising-based business model led the company to create a platform that now includes video-sharing, email, social media, word processing, spreadsheets, maps, and much much more.
Similarly, the more people sign up to social networks like Facebook, the more essential it becomes for others to sign up as well. These ‘network effects’ have allowed platforms like Facebook to expand exponentially. In turn, this positive feedback - an online form of economies of scale - acts as a massive barrier to entry against potential startup rivals that might seek to enter the social media market.
Through such means, Facebook and Google have established monopoly positions for themselves. They have come to dominate the internet landscape and the world of online advertising. This monopoly position, in turn, allows these companies to make super profits, which they can then use to buy up rival startups and reinvest into making their platforms even more enticing for users and advertisers.
The result is an ever smaller number of firms dominating an ever-increasing sphere within the internet, using their position to make massive profits from advertising, and investing some of that profit into expanding their control over the digital world. It is a virtuous cycle for the rich tech elite, perfectly showcasing capitalism’s tendency towards monopoly.
Zuckerberg and co., in this respect, are like the oil tycoons of 19th century America - making their riches from exploitation and rent-seeking. The early oil magnates used their control of the land to generate mega profits from the flow of oil; today’s tech oligarchs make their riches from controlling the flow of data.
Take back control
Others have suggested that new rules and regulations should be introduced to give social media users more control and transparency over their data.
But, as with any other industry, you cannot control what you don’t own. And under a system of private ownership, the big monopolies - in tech or any other sector - are ultimately the ones who have control over our lives (and our data). At the end of the day, the reason we - as users - are alienated from our own information and data is because control, under capitalism, lies in the hands of these giant private companies.
Instead of remunerating individual users for their data or vainly trying to regulate these massive tech monopolies, we should demand that they be brought under public ownership and democratic control.
Like the health service, the railways, or our energy supply, online platforms should be a socially-owned and controlled service, freely available to all, and free from the claws of opaque firms and shadowy advertisers.
To address concerns over privacy and security, such public online services should be run and managed from the bottom-up. The cluelessness displayed by the inquisitors at the Zuckerberg hearings recently demonstrates that capitalist politicians cannot be trusted to manage and regulate the online world.
Instead, joint bodies composed of elected representatives from online community groups and tech-worker unions should ensure accountability and transparency. And all code, under public ownership, should be made open source - the technological equivalent of opening up the books. This, in turn, would give an enormous boost to technological innovation and creativity.
Expropriate the tech elite
There is no inherent need for the technologies we use to be invasive and untrustworthy. This flows from the alienating and competitive logic of capitalism, not from any technical necessity.
A socialist economy, where the means of production - including all software, source code, and the vast server farms they run on - are owned by the working class, would put an end to the marketisation of our social interactions.
This would drain the festering swamp of data harvesting and abolish the current byzantine system under which our data is turned over to advertisers, who in turn pollute every medium known to humankind.
A socialist planned economy would have no use for these parasites. It would eliminate the anarchy of the market and competition, allowing instead for the democratic, rational planning of production by the working class - run for the benefit of society’s needs, not profits. To make this a reality, we must not merely shun this or that capitalist. Instead, we must expropriate the assets of the entire capitalist class as a whole, without compensation.
A small, wealthy elite of modern-day robber barons - the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world - would lose their power and privileges. But the vast majority of people would reap the benefits.