Google and surveillance capitalism

Brian Barth:

“History offers sobering lessons about societies that practise mass surveillance.”

But the privacy overreaches and the betrayal of consumer trust are, for Balsillie, sideshows to the real scandal: that Silicon Valley’s main business model is founded on the exhaustive monitoring of human behaviour—a revenue stream it is loath to give up. The five most valuable corporations in the world are all tech companies, and the top two, Apple and Amazon, recently became the first trillion-dollar enterprises, which put their worth above the GDP of all but sixteen countries. Balsillie, like many, refers to this new economic order as “surveillance capitalism,” which he described at the hearing as “the most powerful market force today.”

The subject of surveillance capitalism seemed to hit a nerve with McKay. “Despite what Mr. Balsillie said,” he countered, “we do not sell the personal information of our users.” Google’s business model, he explained, is based on “services that are provided free to Canadians and everyone else in the world through advertising. It’s advertising that’s targeted at aggregated groups, not at individuals, and there’s no exchange of personal information between Google and advertisers.”

Don’t be “tricked by platitudes,” Balsillie urged the MPs. While Google might not sell user information per se, it certainly monetizes it in transactions with third parties. Nearly 85 percent of the revenue generated by Alphabet—Google’s parent company—comes from advertising, so the levers between personal data and profit making are plain to see. The relevant question, said Balsillie, taking off his glasses, is, “Do you exploit information?” Given that Google fields around 90 percent of internet searches worldwide, the company’s search algorithm represents a source of power with few historical precedents. In an age of fake news, cyberwarfare, and toxic online culture, it would seem reckless not to be concerned that such power is accountable to shareholders rather than elected officials.

Many taxpayer supported K-12 school districts, including Madison use Google services.