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SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM AND THE CHALLENGE TO LAWMAKERS

Surveillance capitalism defines the 21st century economic frontier. It was invented at Google two decades ago, became the default model of the tech sector, and now migrates across the economy. Once we understand its unprecedented operations, it’s clear that we need 21st century laws to interrupt and outlaw its equally unprecedented harms.



Briefly, surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims private experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Most data are hunted, captured, and valued not for service improvement but rather for their rich predictive signals. These data flows lay the foundation for a lucrative new surveillance economy. First, data are extracted from private experience. Next, they are conveyed to computational factories called “machine intelligence” where they are fabricated into behavioral predictions. Finally, prediction products are sold to business customers in markets that trade exclusively in human futures where companies compete on the quality of predictions: they sell certainty.



The dynamics of these markets produce economic imperatives: Great predictions require data in volume and variety (economies of scale and scope). Surveillance capitalism drives toward a totality of information... from bodies to cars, homes to cities, bloodstreams to brain waves. The most predictive data come from intervening in the state of play to modify action in ways that serve the bottom line. Data scientists call this the shift from “monitoring” to “actuation,” where a critical mass of data can be used to impose programmed control. Surveillance capitalists operate through the medium of the digital layer to achieve these economies of action: automated systems designed to modify human behavior in the direction of preferred outcomes. The ability “to know” gives way to the power to control.



The imperatives set surveillance capitalism on a collision course with democracy. At the grassroots, they undermine human agency, usurping decision rights and compromising autonomy in ways that are incompatible with democracy. Surveillance capitalism simultaneously compromises democracy from above with extreme concentrations of knowledge and power. The social pattern reverts to the pre-modern ––the few preside over the many in a new kind of computational tyranny.



Surveillance capitalism thrived in the absence of law. It’s not that we’ve failed to reign in this rogue economics; we’ve not yet tried. But our societies have successfully confronted destructive forms of raw capitalism in the past. We once ended the Gilded Age, asserting new laws that tethered capitalism to the real needs of people and democracy. The next great regulatory vision is likely to be framed by lawmakers, citizens, and specialists allied in the knowledge that democracy must have the final say over the digital future.



1. Lawmakers should focus on the front and back ends of surveillance capitalism’s operations: supply chains and sales. At the front end, we can outlaw the secret theft of private experience and thus interrupt the production and flow of behavioral data. At the back end, we can outlaw markets that trade in human futures, because we know that their competitive dynamics put surveillance capitalism on a collision course with democracy. We already outlaw markets that traffic in slavery or human organs. The competitive advantages of surveillance operations and the social inequality they produce are erased in the absence of the lucrative trade in human futures.



2. From the point of view of supply and demand, surveillance capitalism is a market failure. When “users” are informed of surveillance capitalism’s backstage operations, research shows that they typically want protection and alternatives. We need laws that advantage companies determined to break with the surveillance paradigm. An alternative trajectory to the digital future requires alliances of new competitors who can summon and nourish an alternative commercial ecosystem. Competitors that align themselves with the actual needs of people and the norms of market democracy are likely to attract just about every person on earth as their customer.



3. Lawmakers should support new forms of collective action, just as a century ago workers won legal protections for their rights to organize, and bargain collectively. New forms of citizen solidarity are already emerging in municipalities that seek alternatives to the surveillance capitalist smart city future, in communities that want to resist the social costs of so-called “disruption,” and among workers who seek fair wages and reasonable security in the precarious conditions of the “gig economy.”



Surveillance capitalists are rich and powerful, but they are not invulnerable. They fear law and lawmakers. They fear citizens who insist on a different path forward. Both are now bound together in the big work of rescuing the digital future for democracy.