Once momentum and capital accrued, it became increasingly difficult to alter course. Historians of technology call this “path dependence,” and it highlights that the evolution of technology is always about more than technology per se. With an accommodating policy framework, surveillance was cemented as the net’s primary business model. A supporting infrastructure advanced rapidly. When Google and Facebook went on to build advertising empires in the intervening years, they relied on more than just moxie and heaps of venture capital. They also banked on the political premise that data collection would be pervasive by default, that they would be free to build the tools of mass surveillance and targeted persuasion without being held to public account. While privacy dust-ups have been perennial, a digital marketing lobby has ballooned to mitigate threats. Google is now among the nation’s biggest lobbyists and Facebook is on track to join the ranks.
The internet’s apparent tendency to promote winner-take-all markets, combined with neoliberalism’s high tolerance for market concentration, has enabled Facebook and Google to achieve extraordinary control over the digital marketing sector. These two behemoths, increasingly recognized as an online advertising duopoly, are among the world’s leading purveyors of marketing surveillance and key platforms for political persuasion. At Facebook in particular, this incredible bottlenecking of surveillance capacity has drawn a surge of criticism regarding the company’s role in enabling political manipulation and what, if any, civic responsibilities are borne by private enterprise of such magnitude.