Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Roger McNamee, who originally backed Facebook through his VC firm Elevation Partners, is now their most strident opponent. The December 2019 New Yorker article, Big Tech’s Big Defector, outlines how McNamee turned from friend to foe after the company’s role in the 2016 election.
The range range of data privacy solutions interspersed throughout the article was new ground for me. We hear much lamenting about “big tech” and data privacy, but conversations around reform are sorely lacking in substance.
Illustration by Marc Pallarès
“The core of McNamee’s concerns is Internet companies’ use of what he calls ‘data voodoo dolls’—digital profiles they develop for each user. He claims that these profiles are ‘effectively an extension of yourself,’ and that it should be ‘no more legitimate to trade the data in a data voodoo doll than it is to trade someone’s kidney.’” The digital voodoo dolls result in many social ills: discrimination, election manipulation/interference, voter suppression, amplification of “harmful” content such as anti-vaxxer propaganda.
Micro-targeted online political ads: “By collecting data from Facebook without user consent, the company was able to identify micro-populations of voters, then serve up customized ads encouraging them to vote for Donald Trump.” To understand how this is truly a novel threat to democracy, one must first understand the traditional political advertising channels. TV ads cannot microtarget audiences. Instead, broader demographics are served adverts through pre-buys with set schedules.
To be clear, there is not necessarily a consensus on the extent of social media’s impact on elections and the risk for consumers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, generally considered a left-leaning organization, views some of McNamee’s policy proposals as extreme. Bill Gates says that McNamee blames Zuckerberg unfairly. Despite the nascent range of opinions on data privacy, many major state actors view data privacy as a problem that warrants legislation that includes major penalties for violators.
Proposed policy reforms:
The problem with the prevailing policy “opt-in/opt-out” solutions such as CCPA in California and the GDPR in the EU: “ Such laws expand consumers’ control over their data and give them new legal tools for holding companies accountable. ....Under G.D.P.R. rules, companies must ask users to opt in before their data can be processed by third parties—but, as soon as consumers consent, it’s more or less back to business as usual. And the rules are relatively loose when it comes to metadata. Even if the contents of a phone call are protected, the time of the call or the parties involved might not be.”
According to McNamee, antitrust regulation, a much discussed topic during the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, does not address the root cause: “ ‘I want to prevent the data from getting into the system in the first place,’ he told me. The reform that would really have teeth, he says, is one that would ‘ban all third-party commerce in private information—financial information, location information, health information, browser history, scanning of e-mail.’ Companies would be allowed to collect data needed for their services, but nothing else: a wellness app could store your height or your weight but not the location of your gym—and none of this information could be shared with
There are other proposals that might redefine online privacy norms without wholly reinventing them. Tristan Harris, a former Google ethicist and the executive director of the Center for Humane Technology, said that most people “would never say a doctor or lawyer shouldn’t have access to information about us, or that they can’t monetize something in their relationship with us. We say they have to monetize it in alignment with our best interests.” Instead of a ban, Harris argues for extending the fiduciary duty of doctors, lawyers, and other professions to include Internet companies, legally binding them to act exclusively in accordance with their clients’ well-being.
Another approach is pigovian in nature: Harris also “Proposes a tax on income derived from targeted digital ads, an approach endorsed by the economist and Nobel laureate Paul Romer. In theory, this would encourage tech companies to adopt business models that rely less on personal data, and the tax would be progressive, so as to favor smaller businesses. Harris likens the monetization of user data to the extraction of fossil fuels: “These are the most profitable business models but also the most polluting.” Alongside a tax on polluters, he proposes subsidizing alternatives—platforms that have made commitments not to stoke outrage.
In summary, current laws do not address the root of data privacy problems. Further, it seems like the term "big tech" is being misapplied. "Big Tech" is a blanket term for a handful of tech companies that have distinct regulatory challenges and impacts on wide swaths of society. Can we just use the proper nouns?