The Startup
Published in

The Startup

Big Tech Regulators Are Missing the Point

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a 2018 Congressional hearing on privacy (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images | Source)

Surveillance Capitalism?

Zuboff’s paradigm-shifting work, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, is a necessary prerequisite read for anybody who dares challenge Big Tech’s hegemonic influence. I’ll detail a few key concepts that motivate the regulatory arguments against Big Tech and best depict why current Antitrust cases will likely fall embarrassingly flat.

Facebook is not after Instagram or WhatsApp in order to improve the actual user interfaces or messaging capabilities, they are after these companies to acquire more of your behavioral data to feed into their machine learning prediction algorithms.

Primary is the idea that companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and more, are not in the business of making their user products better. Zuboff calls this old cycle of product improvement the “behavioral reinvestment cycle.” This argues that, in the old days, Google may have used user data on how their search bar has been used in order to improve the search bar itself — potentially adding a new feature like search suggestions. This cycle closely mirrors the cycle of capital reinvestment from industrial capitalism, where we can imagine the profits from a company like Ford Motor to be reinvested back into their production lines or the cars themselves.

How Regulators Should Proceed

In light of these ideas that drastically shift how Big Tech is understood, regulators need to commensurately shift their strategies. The narratives that Facebook and Google have become expert at blasting out in blog posts will trump regulators’ narratives unless they, and the public, truly understand what these companies are after.

They plainly make people think their apps are communication, entertainment, or gaming tools. But this is only what they are on the surface: they are actually tools to make behavioral prediction products for advertisers.

Instead of trying to argue that product-based competition has been harmed by Big Tech snapping up would-be competitors like Instagram or WhatsApp, a better argument must emphasize that prediction product competition is monopolized by acquiring more sources of data. I should strongly note that I do not endorse in the slightest the idea that a market of prediction products is even legitimate. Nor do I wish to imply it doesn’t infringe heavily on human rights. However, using the language of surveillance capitalism will help regulators take the first step in the argument against Big Tech, and will lead to even stronger critiques that these predictions products — based on enormous and rich streams of behavioral data — infringe on autonomy as they arguably “know” you so well they can manipulate you. The anti-competitive argument easily follows from recognizing that the competition lies in competing data extraction and predictions, not competing user interfaces or product features.

Urgency is Needed, with Caution

These ideas scratch the surface of how understanding of Big Tech companies needs to radically shift in order to motivate any regulatory action and rhetoric that cuts at the core of the actual problems. Without such an understanding, regulators seem doomed to face frustrations and lose the trust of the public through failed action, and easy counter-arguments coming from Big Tech.



Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +768K followers.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Nick Rabb

PhD candidate in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer w/ Dissenters, MA Peace Action, formerly Sunrise Mvmt. Philosophy nerd.