The Guardian view on digital giants: they farm us for the data
We are neither the customers nor even the product of companies like Google,but we turn our lives into the knowledge that they sell
An astonishing project is under way to build a “digital time machine” thatwill show us in fine detail the lives of ordinary Venetians across a thousandyears of history. It is made possible by the persistence of the republic’sbureaucracy, which, when Napoleon extinguished the Republic of Venice in 1797,left behind 80km of shelving full of records of births, deaths, trades,building, land ownership, private letters, ambassadors’ reports and even medicalinformation. All this is now to be digitised, cross-referenced, and analysed,and all its secrets laid bare to provide a picture in unprecedented richness anddetail of the lives of individuals and the development of society over manycenturies. Obviously, this is wonderful for historians and indeed anybody withan imagination alive today. One wonders, though, what the Venetians would havemade of it, had they known their lives and letters would be so carefullyanatomised after their deaths.
Far more is known about us now, though, and in real time. The data in theVenetian archives was unmatched in medieval and even early modern Europe, but itis only legend and scraps of hearsay compared to the knowledge of us accumulatedby the giants of the digital economy – Google, Facebook, and Amazon – who all invarious
ways use the data harvested from their users to make billions ofdollars, from advertising or from direct selling, or from some combination ofboth. Their knowledge of our intimate lives doesn’t wait two centuries or moreuntil we’re dead. They get it live, in real time. Sometimes they know our mindsbefore we know them ourselves. It’s a situation quite unprecedented inhistory.
The European commission may be about to levy the biggest fine in itshistory on Google for anti-competitive behaviour – potentially more than EUR1bn.This case, five years in the making, is the latest, and perhaps the largest,battle in the struggle to establish democratic control over the giants of thedigital economy. In the US, the government has been captured by thecorporations, and in China universal surveillance is openly converted to a meansof government
control. Only the EU attempts to balance these powers to thebenefit of the ordinary citizen.
The power and ambition of these companies is astonishing – Amazon has justannounced the purchase of the upmarket grocery chain Whole Foods for $13.5bn,but two years ago Facebook paid even more than that to acquire the WhatsAppmessaging service, which doesn’t have any physical product at all. What WhatsAppoffered Facebook was an intricate and finely detailed tracery of its users’friendships and social lives. Facebook promised the European commission thenthat it would not link phone numbers to Facebook identities, but it broke thepromise almost as soon as the deal went through. Even without knowing what wasin the messages, the knowledge of who sent them and to whom was enormouslyrevealing and still could be. What political journalist, what party whip, wouldnot want to know the makeup of the WhatsApp groups in which Theresa May’senemies are currently plotting? It may be that the value to Amazon of WholeFoods is not so much the 460 shops it owns, or the distribution network, but therecords of which customers have purchased what.
Competition law appears to be the only way to address these imbalances ofpower. But it is clumsy. For one thing, it is very slow compared to the pace ofchange within the digital economy. By the time a problem has been addressed andremedied it may have vanished in the marketplace, to be replaced by new abusesof power. But there is a deeper conceptual problem, too. Competition law aspresently interpreted deals with financial disadvantage to consumers and this isnot obvious when the users of these services don’t pay for them. The users oftheir services are not their customers. That would be the people who buyadvertising from them – and Facebook and Google operate a virtual duopoly indigital advertising to the detriment of all other media and entertainmentcompanies.
The product they’re selling is data, and we, the users, convert our livesto data for the benefit of the digital giants. Just as some ants farm aphids forthe honeydew that oozes from them when they feed, so Google farms us for thedata that our digital lives exude. Ants keep predatory insects away from wheretheir aphids feed; Gmail keeps the spammers out of our inboxes. It doesn’t feellike a human or democratic relationship, even if both sides benefit.
? This article was amended on 19 June 2017 to remove a reference to Applewhich was not apt.