Surveillance Capitalism is the standard and dominant business model of the internet today.
Depending on who you talk to, Surveillance Capitalism is either a necessary quid pro quo between digital service providers, who need to sell ads so you can use their stuff for free, or …
an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty and a prominent force in the perilous drift towards democratic de-consolidation that now threatens Western liberal democracies.
The above quote is from Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. There she applies her prodigious talents of thinking and research to unpack the full scope of the threat, cataloguing the degree to which this rogue version of industrial capitalism might be wreaking havoc upon human nature itself. It is essential reading for anyone concerned about where this is all going, and for our species’ fate, at our own hands.
Rather than dig into an attempted summary of her work, which can be easily found elsewhere, let me introduce the contender: Privacy Capitalism.
Privacy Capitalism is a new vision of the commercial structure of life online. We are still yet at a very nascent stage of the internet. At the time of writing we are only 52.8 years into the Current Epoch Unix Timestamp, and during that time we have witnessed enormous amounts of innovation. However, one category of digital innovations has been largely conspicuous by its absence, namely those relating to digital privacy.
This provokes no great amount of surprise. Widespread privacy seems likely not to be in the interests of wealthy internet companies, who have become that way by gathering and selling surveilled user data. That is a reasonable assumption, however, it is one that, having just set up, I would like to challenge.
Privacy Capitalism re-wires the basic assumptions of life online, and in this direction: instead of everything you do that is connected to the digital space being pilfered and fed to algorithms designed to sell you stuff, Privacy Capitalism secures your personal information and hands you the keys. You can throw them away, if you want, or you can allow businesses from around the world to buy access to your data from you. Not selling your data is a right that, in this new world, is able to be exercised easily, at any time; but apart from not receiving the money, you won’t be able to access the many customised services that depend on access to your data. Every individual will be able to control exactly what they share with whom, at whichever level of granular complexity they can be bothered managing.
The real surprise for most people will be to learn how valuable their data is. As they do, and as they come to understand that this is something different to the Surveillance Capitalism model, they likely will feel more respected and may come to trust that they can express their desires within the digital world without those desires being turned against them. As this environment of trust is constructed, and constructed properly, people may even begin to describe what it is that they actually want. Ironically, Privacy Capitalism unlocks a type of hyper-capitalism, in which the expression of consumerist desires blends with the creation and securitisation of intellectual property, to form a new marketplace of unlimited potential. This potential, over time, is expressed as monetary velocity, which ultimately drives economic growth.
That is where the incumbent companies can make this work for them. Rather than dominating the landscape, they can participate in an all-together more active and prosperous online economy. Their utility is absolutely proven beyond question, but their business model is approaching its use-by date. Clearly the market is ready for the next thing.
Privacy Capitalism flips the economic model of Surveillance Capitalism, to force include the user into the equation. Companies are already paying the large attention aggregators for access to your data. Why not buy from you directly?
Well, largely that is because the technology to do the trade hasn’t existed to date. To do it, you need to solve a few problems simultaneously.
You need to have secure digital identities.
You need to be able to secure data so that only the people (the “entities” behind those identities) can control what happens to the data.
You also need an efficient payments rail, that efficiently handles micropayments.
Vaulted Ventures is advancing the state of the art in terms of private data containers and the supporting frameworks. We call these Vaulted Objects. They were originally conceived of as a better way of architecting an NFT (and they are), but what has become clear is that they have many other uses as well. One of those uses is in the archiving and protection of private data.
A key feature of a Vaulted Object is that it encrypts the content data, such that the original (unencrypted) data can only be retrieved by the owner. That means that it can be used to keep private information private. It also means that the data within the Vaulted Object can be legally owned as a chose in possession, because the chose (the “thing”) is effectively immobilised.
The Vaulted Objects framework is very efficient. It is deployed on normal cloud services, and doesn’t require the use of the blockchain design pattern to be deterministically secure, or to do payments.
The payments mechanism enables the Privacy Capitalism model to come together. Secure micropayments, without network fees, enable merchants to be paid for goods and services, and customers to be paid for data access. This is the functional mechanism to drive monetary velocity, and to open the door to a new kind of electronic commerce.