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[liberationtech] Shoshanna Zuboff: Dark Google

Yosem Companys companys at
Thu May 1 08:40:50 PDT 2014


Dark Google

We witness the rise of a new absolute power. Google transfers its
radical politics from cyberspace to reality. It will earn its money by
knowing, manipulating, controlling the reality and cutting it into the
tiniest pieces.


Recall those fabled frogs happy in the magic pond. Playful.
Distracted. The water temperature slowly rises, but the frogs don’t
notice. By the time it reaches the boiling point, it’s too late to
leap to safety.  We are as frogs in the digital waters, and Springer
CEO Mathias Dopfner has just become our frog town crier.  Mr.
Dopfner’s "Why We Fear Google" (a
response to Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s open letter, "A
Chance for Growth" warns of danger on
the move: "The temperatures are rising fast.”  If his cry of alarm
scares you, that’s good. Why?

First, because there is a dawning awareness that Google is forging a
new kingdom on the strength of a different kind of power ––
ubiquitous, hidden, and unaccountable. If successful, the dominion of
this kingdom will exceed anything the world has known. The water is
close to boiling, because Google understands this statement more
profoundly than we do.

Second, because accessing the Web and the wider Internet have become
essential for effective social participation across much of the world.
A BBC poll conducted in 2010 found that 79% of people in 26 countries
considered access to the Internet to be a fundamental human right. We
rely on Google’s tools as we search, learn, connect, communicate, and
transact. The chilling irony is that we’ve become dependent on the
Internet to enhance our lives, but the very tools we use there
threaten to remake society in ways that we do not understand and have
not chosen.

Something new and dangerous

If there is a single word to describe Google, it is "absolute." The
Britannica defines absolutism as a system in which "the ruling power
is not subject to regularized challenge or check by any other agency."
 In ordinary affairs, absolutism is a moral attitude in which values
and principles are regarded as unchallengeable and universal. There is
no relativism, context-dependence, or openness to change.

Six years ago I asked Eric Schmidt what corporate innovations Google
was putting in place to ensure that its interests were aligned with
its end users. Would it betray their trust?  Back then his answer
stunned me. He and Google’s founders control the super-voting class B
stock. This allows them, he explained, to make decisions without
regard to short-term pressure from Wall Street. Of course, it also
insulates them from every other kind of influence. There was no
wrestling with the creation of an inclusive, trustworthy, and
transparent governance system.  There was no struggle to
institutionalize scrutiny and feedback.  Instead Schmidt’s answer was
the quintessence of absolutism: "trust me; I know best." At that
moment I knew I was in the presence of something new and dangerous
whose effects reached beyond narrow economic contests and into the
heart of everyday life.

Google kills Innovation

Mr. Schmidt’s open letter to Europe shows evidence of such absolutism.
Democratic oversight is characterized as "heavy-handed regulation."
The "Internet", "Web", and "Google" are referenced interchangeably, as
if Goggle’s interests stand for the entire Web and Internet. That’s a
magician’s sleight of hand intended to distract from the real issue.
Google’s absolutist pursuit of its interests is now regarded by many
as responsible for the Web’s fading prospects as an open information
platform in which participants can agree on rules, rights, and choice.

Schmidt warns that were the E.U. to oppose Google’s practices, Europe
risks becoming "an innovation desert."  Just the opposite is more
likely true. Thanks in part to Google’s exquisite genius in the
science of surveillance,  the audacity with which it has expropriated
users’ rights to privacy, and the aggressive tactics of the NSA,
people are losing trust in the entire digital medium. It is this loss
of trust that stands to kill innovation. To make some sense of our
predicament, let’s take a fresh look at how we got here, the nature of
the threats we face, and the stakes for the future.

Google Colonizes a Blank Area and the NSA Follows

In his extended essay, "The Loneliness of the Dying", the sociologist
Norbert Elias observes that "dying is at present a largely unformed
situation, a blank area on the social map."  Such "blanks" occur when
earlier meanings and practices no longer apply, but new ones have yet
to be created.  Google’s rapid rise to power was possible because it
ventured into this kind of blank area. It colonized the blank space at
high speed without challenge or impediment. Google did not ask
permission, seek consensus,  elicit opinion, or even make visible its
rules and ramparts. How did this occur?

Breaking the Rules of the "Old World"

The first key ingredient was demand. During the second half of the
twentieth century, more education and complex social experience
produced a new kind of individual. No longer content to conform to the
mass, more people sought their own unique paths to self-determination.
It was a period of growing frustration with existing institutions that
were still oriented toward the mass society of an earlier time. People
wanted to reinvent social experiences in ways that expressed their new
sensibilities. They wanted information on their own terms, not
controlled by the old norms, professional fortresses, and business

The arrival of the Internet provided a new way forward. As web
browsers and search tools became available, the new individuals rushed
onto the Web with their pent up demands for genuine voice and
connection. Information access and communication could bypass old
boundaries and be reconfigured to suit any need.  Here finally was
experience  how I want it, where I want it, when I want it. There was
a presumption that the adversarial rules from the "old world" of 20th
century commerce did not apply. This was a new "networked public
sphere," as legal scholar Yochai Benkler called it. There was no
looking back.

Google and other companies rushed into the new space too, and for a
while it seemed that they were aligned with the popular expectations
of trust and collaboration. But as pressures for profit increased,
Google, Facebook, and others shifted to an advertising model that
required the covert capture of user data as the currency for ad sales.
Profits rapidly materialized and motivated ever more ruthless and
determined data collection. The new science of data mining exploded,
driven in part by Google’s spectacular success.

Fighting the Law

The whole topography of cyberspace then began to morph as Google and
Facebook shifted away from the ethos of the public web, while
carefully retaining its rhetoric. They began to develop a new logic of
operations in what had until then been a blank area. The new zone
didn’t resemble the bricks and mortar world of commerce, but neither
did it follow the norms of the open web. This confused and distracted
users.  In fact, the firms were developing a wholly new business logic
that incorporated elements of the conventional logic  of corporate
capitalism –especially its adversarialism toward end consumers – along
with  elements from the new Internet world – especially its intimacy.
The outcome was the elaboration of  a new commercial logic based on
hidden surveillance. Most people did not understand that they and
their friends were being tracked, parsed, and mined without their
knowledge or consent.

A steady stream of eruptions from the new zone provides evidence of
this new logic of operations. For example, Google faces a series of
contentious lawsuits over its secret scanning of all Gmail, including
mail from non-Gmail accounts.  It first tried to conceal the scanning
procedures in 2010 and only fully acknowledged them after four years
of public outcry. In one „potentially explosive” lawsuit Google
acknowledged that it unilaterally scans millions of email messages
sent or received by  the 30 million student users of the the company’s
Apps for Education tools. In 2012 Google face more outrage and
lawsuits when it announced  that it would consolidate data about its
users from all its services without any mechanism of consent.

Google Street View launched in 2007 is another example of the
company’s absolutism. It didn’t ask if it could photograph  homes for
public consumption, it just took what it wanted and waited for any
resistance to exhaust itself in defeat. Ultimately Street View would
face protests and restrictions in many countries across the EU as well
as Japan, Greece, and Canada.

The Shared Interest of NSA and Google

By 2010 the German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection announced
that Google’s Street View operation also camouflaged a covert data
sweep from users of private Wi-Fi networks. He called for an immediate
halt to Street View in Germany and erasure of all illegally captured
data. Other countries followed with their own investigations and

The Electronic Privacy and Information Center has consistently pressed
the case. It maintains a detailed overview of the worldwide outrage,
protests, investigations, litigation, and settlements in response to
Google Street View and its secret data gathering tactics.

In 2010, Google established a partnership with the NSA that added to
the complexity and opacity of operations in the new zone. The
ostensible trigger for this public-private alliance was Google’s
discovery that the Chinese had hacked its infrastructure. However, the
NSA already had a keen interest in all things Google. It struggled
with the demands of tracking objects and discerning patterns in
Internet time. The NSA was actively developing  the same tools and
capabilities that allowed Google to search and analyze masses of data
at warp speed.

A New Business Model

The U.S. Justice Department kept the partnership secret,  but news
reports, court documents, and eventually the Snowden leaks reveals a
picture of interdependence and  collaboration. As former director of
the NSA Mike McConnell put it, "Recent reports of possible partnership
between Google and the government point to the kind of joint efforts
-- and shared challenges -- that we are likely to see in the
future...Cyberspace knows no borders, and our defensive efforts must
be similarly seamless."  The NSA developed its own software to mimic
the Google infrastructure, uses Google “cookies” to identify targets
for hacking, and widely accesses emails and other data through the
PRISM program, the costs of which it covered for Google and other
Internet firms.

Google and Facebook had led the way in colonizing the new zone with a
commercial logic based on surveillance. Now the Google-NSA alliance
added new layers and capabilities, as well as a complex public-private
dimension that remains poorly understood.  Whatever the details might
be, the new logic spread to other companies and applications, driving
the growth and success of operations in the new zone.

Despite this growth, it’s been difficult to grasp the changing social
relations that are produced in the new zone. associated with Google’s
new commercial logic.  There are two reasons for this. First, the
companies move faster than individuals or democratic public
institutions can follow.  Second, its operations are designed to be
undetectable.  It’s this later point that I want to focus on for a

Google’s Radical Politics

We often hear that our privacy rights have been eroded and secrecy has
grown. But that way of framing things obscures what’s really at stake.
Privacy hasn’t been eroded. It’s been expropriated.  The difference in
framing provides new ways to define the problem and consider

In the conventional telling, privacy and secrecy are treated as
opposites. In fact, one is a cause and the other is an effect.
Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep
something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we
first have privacy.  Privacy rights confer decision rights.  Privacy
lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and
transparency in each situation.  Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the

I suggest that privacy rights have not been eroded, if anything
they’ve multiplied.  The difference now is how these rights are
distributed. Instead of many people having some privacy rights, nearly
all the rights have been concentrated in the hands of a few.  On the
one hand, we have lost the ability to choose what we keep secret, and
what we share. On the other, Google, the NSA, and others in the new
zone have accumulated privacy rights. How?  Most of their rights have
come from taking ours without asking.  But they also manufactured new
rights for themselves, the way a forger might print currency.  They
assert a right to privacy with respect to their surveillance tactics
and then exercise their choice to keep those tactics secret.

A pre-modern absolutism

Finally - and this is key - the new concentration of privacy rights is
institutionalized in the automatic undetectable functions of a global
infrastructure that most of the world’s people also happen to think is
essential for basic social participation. This turns ordinary life
into the daily renewal of a 21st century Faustian pact.

It is difficult to appreciate the global reach and implications of
this rights grab.  Leaving aside whether or not it crosses the
threshold of "revolution," it is a form of radical politics that has
engineered a significant redistribution of power in just a few years
based on the. Expropriation of widely held privacy rights and the
choices they entail. This has been accomplished through a unique
assembly of public and private actors and interests that operate
outside the auspices of legitimate democratic mechanisms. In some
respects, the social relations that emerge from this rights grab are
best compared to that of  a pre-modern absolutism.

We have been caught off guard. Neither we as individuals nor our
public institutions have a clear grasp of these new relationships,
their implications, the relevant paths to action, or the goals to
achieve. There are good reasons for so much confusion and dismay. The
dynamics I describe have occurred in a blank area that is not easily
captured by our existing social, economic, and political categories.
They extend far beyond the realm of economics and the old debates
about business monopolies and competitive practices. The new business
operations reach beyond our wallets into the very essence of our
lives. They elude our mental models and defy our rational expectations
to such an extent that we end up questioning our own witness and
powers of evaluation. Unfortunately, the situation is about to get
worse as Google’s radical politics spread from cyberspace to the real

Reality is the Next Big Thing

What is Google up to next?  We know it’s secret, but here is how it
looks to me. Google is no longer content with the data business.  It’s
next step is to build an even more radical "reality business."  Google
sees "reality” as the next big thing that it can carve up and sell. In
the data business, the payoff is in data patterns that help target
ads. In the reality business, the payoff is in shaping and
communicating real life behaviors of people and things in millions of
ways that drive revenue to Google. The business model is expanding to
encompass the digital you as well as the actual you. The scene is
changing from virtual reality to, well, reality. Unsurprisingly, the
two entities at the vanguard of this new wave are Google and the NSA.

The "reality business” reflects a shift in the frontier of data
science from data mining to "reality mining.”  This new approach was
pioneered over the last decade at the MIT Media Lab. Now its migrating
to military intelligence and commercial applications.  In a 2011
paper,  MIT Professor Alex Pentland explains the value of reality
mining. "We must reinvent societies’ systems within a control
framework.” He notes that this will require exponential growth in data
about human behavior.” In another paper, Pentland explains that the
proliferation of sensors, mobile phones, and other data capture
devices will provide the "eyes and ears” of a "world-spanning living
organism.”  Where do people eat? Work? Hang out?” - Distributed sensor
networks,” he observes, "will provide a God’s eye view of ourselves.
For the first time, we can precisely map the behavior of large numbers
of people as they go about their daily lives.”

The NSA and other intelligence agencies are already  using “pattern of
life analysis” to identify threats, including those that might
originate within the organization as they hope to head off the next
Edward Snowden.  A range of software companies, some spun off from or
funded by the intelligence agencies, provide capabilities in
patterns-of-life activity and activity-based intelligence analysis.

Reality is the new product

Google’s ambitions in this new arena appear to be limitless. In 2012
Brin/Page/Schmidt hired computer scientist Ray Kurzweil to lead
engineering. Kurzweil, a brilliant inventor,  is a proselytizer for
the idea that computers can develop consciousness. "Future machines
will be human,” he wrote, "Most of the intelligence of our
civilization will ultimately be nonbiological."  Kurzweil wants to
turn “the next decade’s ‘unrealistic’ visions into reality” at Google.
 The firm has purchased most of the top machine learning and robotics
companies to build what has been described as the "greatest artificial
intelligence laboratory on earth.” It paid richly for a company that
produces high altitude drones as well as Nest Labs, a firm at the
forefront of smart devices for the home and considered essential in
the new Internet of Things.

All this suggests that Google is building capabilities even more
ambitious than reality "mining”. The aim is not merely the God’s eye
view, but the God’s eye power to shape and control reality. Google’s
glasses, wearables, or self-driving cars have a clear purpose: to
inform on where you’ve been, and where you are, and to influence where
you’re going. As one expert has suggested, third parties could pay for
programming that drives the car sends you to their restaurant,  store
or political rally .

There are vast opportunities for similar reality mining and shaping
through the Internet of Things. This refers to the growing network of
smart sensors and Internet enabled devices intended as an intelligent
infrastructure for all objects and even bodies. From your baby’s
diapers, to your refrigerator, heating system, mattress, lights,
walls,coffee mug, and artificial knee ––this will be the smart neural
network in which you breathe, eat, sleep, travel, and work.  It will
perform infinite configurations of actions, observations, suggestions,
communications, and interventions all geared to a new product
category: reality. Google and others will make money knowing,
manipulating, controlling, slicing, and dicing all of it.

Is Reality for Sale?

To make sense of this big puzzle, it helps to have some historical
perspective. There are two useful ideas for us in the work of
historian Karl Polanyi. He described the rise of a new human
conception: the self-regulating market economy.  He saw that the
market economies of the 19th and 20th centuries depended upon three
astonishing mental inventions.  He called them "fictions". The first
was that human life can be subordinated to market dynamics and be
reborn as „labor.” Second,  nature can be subordinated and reborn as
"real estate." Third, that purchasing power can be reborn as "money.”
The very possibility of industrial capitalism depended upon the
creation of  these  three critical  "fictional commodities.” Life,
nature, and exchange had to be turned into things that could be
profitably bought and sold.

Google brings us to the precipice of a new development in the scope of
the market economy. A fourth fictional commodity is emerging as a
dominant characteristic of market dynamics in the 21st century.
"Reality" is about to undergo the same kind of fictional
transformation and be reborn as "behavior."  This includes the
behavior of  creatures, their bodies, and their things. It includes
actual behavior and data about behavior. It is the world-spanning
organism and all the tiniest elements within it.

Polanyi understood that the pure unimpeded operations of  a
self-regulating of the market were profoundly destructive. Society
required    countermeasures to avoid such danger. He called this the
"double movement":  "a network of measures and policies...integrated
into powerful institutions designed to check the action of the market
relative to labor, land, and money." Regulation, legislation,
democratic oversight...these are the critical responses necessary to
protect society from  a downward spiral. Anticipating the century to
come,  he urged the strengthening of the double movement, that "every
increase in integration in society should thus be accompanied by an
increase of freedom...the strengthening of the rights of the
individual in society.”

Europe’s Task

This returns us to our starting point. Eric Schmidt and Mathias
Döpfners controversy in the F.A.Z.  is only the beginning of a
disruption that will shake industry, society and citizens. It is a
plea for the primacy, urgency, and necessity of a new double movement.
It must be stronger, more confident, and more deeply principled than
we have yet seen. It must provide a counterweight to a dangerous new
absolutism that relies on pervasive, secret, unaccountable power.

We are beyond the realm of economics here. This is not merely a
conversation about free  markets; it’s a conversation about free

It’s an urgent new public conversation that can’t be reduced to 20th
century technical debates about Google’s monopoly status or
competitive practices. We tend to revert to these old categories in
the absence of ready language and law that can help us discern the
full implications of what is taking shape. But such specialized
professional arguments shift the Google debate from the realm of
everyday life and ordinary people to the arcane interests of
economists and bureaucrats. They obscure the fact that the issues have
shifted from monopolies of products or services to monopolies of
rights: rights to privacy and rights to reality.  These new forms of
power, poorly understood except by their own practitioners, threaten
the sovereignty of the democratic social contract.

We are powerful too. Our demands for self-determination are not easily
extinguished.  We made Google, perhaps by loving it too much.  We can
unmake it, if we must. The challenge is to understand what is at stake
and how quickly things are moving. The need is to come together in our
diversity to preserve a future in which many visions can thrive, not
just one –– Where many rights can flourish, not just some.

Things are moving fast. This is why the world now looks to the E.U. -
not to Google - to reverse the growing menace of absolutism and the
monopoly of rights. The EU can stand for the double movement. It can
represent the future and assert the dominion of  democratic rights and
the principles of a fair marketplace. These are the precious victories
of a centuries-long struggle, and we dare not abandon them now.

The author

Shoshana Zuboff is the author of The Summons: Our Fight for the Soul
of an Information Civilization(forthcoming, 2015). She is the Charles
Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration (retired) at the
Harvard Business School and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center
for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School. @shoshanazuboff

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