May 14, 2014

"But to sell our intimate data in bulk is to fully surrender our quest for autonomy..."

"... accepting a life where the most existential choices are shaped either by the forces of the market or by whatever war — be it on climate change or obesity — the government has enlisted us (rather than corporations) to fight."
In this world, whether we become vegetarians, and even whether we end up thinking about it, might ultimately hinge on which player (the steakhouses, the supermarkets, the bureaucrats) has the most to gain from this switch. Our data constitutes our very humanity. To voluntarily treat it as an “asset class” is to agree to the fate of an interactive billboard. We shouldn’t unquestionably accept the argument that personal data is just like any other commodity and that most of our digital problems would disappear if only, instead of gigantic data monopolists like Google and Facebook, we had an army of smaller data entrepreneurs. We don’t let people practice their right to autonomy in order to surrender that very right by selling themselves into slavery. Why make an exception for those who want to sell a slice of their intellect and privacy rather than their bodies?
So says Evgeny Morozov in The New Republic in a piece titled "Selling Your Bulk Online Data Really Means Selling Your Autonomy/Big tech's war on the meaning of life."

This sounds very dramatic — replete with a slavery analogy — and it's irritating to feel like I'm being nudged to take alarm at something that I have to take a lot of trouble to understand before I can take alarm. How data-paranoid are we supposed to be? Or is it free-market-paranoia Morozov is pushing?


The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

But the 'Crats are cool with the NSA. At least during a Democrat administration.

madAsHell said...

There are several big data firms that are organizing on the west coast. They are making money profiling your behavior.

The architecture of the underlying database machines is changing as well, and creating faster queries.

I don't know how they can use the data, but I can imagine.

Nonapod said...

I sure a lot of people will think I'm being hugely naive, but I'm far more concerned about the governments (NSA) use of massive amounts of personal data than Google and Facebook. Google and Facebook want to sell junk to me more effectively. Google and Facebook's ultimate goal is to make money. Google and Facebook can't take away your freedom.

Prolixus said...

The fundamental premise of Morozov's position seems to be a belief that humans don't have free will but are instead shaped by our environment and that advertising manipulates the environment sufficiently to control what we do. Thus we are denied autonomy through targeted advertising.

Of course if you think that humans are capable of making decisions for themselves and that while advertising make tempt someone to take one action or another we ultimately bear personal responsibility for our decisions the world of personalized advertising is not nearly so frightening.

MikeDC said...

Here's a really simple way to understand what a philosophically silly and ultimately Orwellian concept this is. Our traditional philosophical freedoms can be considered extensions of autonomy.
* Freedom of speech.
* Freedom of association.
* Freedom of movement.
* Freedom to own property.
These freedoms are all basically autonomous in that they impose few obligations on other people. Only enough to carve out meaningful autonomy for oneself.

The "freedoms" of the sort you see touted in The New Republic are typically the opposite of Freedoms. They're actually obligations that limit traditional freedoms. The call to treat our "data" as inalienable is really a call to massively curtail the freedom of everyone else. You will no longer be free to write down someone's name and sell it, to to associate as you see fit, to make a living as you see fit.

(Aside: fundamentally this is similar to the "right to health care", which, of course, creates an obligation for everyone else. If I have a right to health care, then I have the right to demand from others that they give it to me. Which, of course, is an imposition on their freedom.)

Real freedoms don't impose big obligations on everyone else. Our data is not our humanity. It's a recording of our decisions as humans. Which, like every other bit of information, needs to be free.

KLDAVIS said...

Nothing (new) to see here. The left has successfully eradicated critical thinking skills from a significant portion of the populace, to their own benefit. Corporations are certainly going to notice that, and only in leftist circles could the consequence have been considered unintended. Now, they can moan about how ultra-targeted advertising will work too well on sheeple, and government must step in to protect them from the problem they created.

Mike (MJB Wolf) said...

Data aggregation and sales are the main businesses of Facebook and Google. Too many people have given up too much personal data to these two and others (check your credit card agreement regarding your "private" data) without realizing the extent to which it can be reassembled -- disaggregated if you will -- and used to create very specific profiles of our behavior.

But the people who run these information mills are the darlings of the left, and because Zuckerberg dislikes the right people (conservatives) and backs the right causes (Amnesty!) he gets a pass from the LIV-consumer class. Where do these people think the NSA gets so much data?

Only when an unexpected event (Snowden's theft, General Mills over-reaching on a EULA that precluded a right to sue them if you buy their cereals, Target admitting a "breach") breaks through the newsclutter and libspeak long enough to penetrate the national consciousness does the average American get a glimpse of the mass-data-collection and retailing that goes on all around us.

We've traded convenience wrapped in a false anonymity for our privacy byte by bit. Google knows damn well who "MJB Wolf" and "Garage Mahal" and "Sgt Ted" are and can connect those dots for any entity willing to pay or coerce them into giving it up. They know what we buy, what we read, what we write and who we hang out with, virtually and in the flesh. The cats so far out of the bag now that my movements and passions can be reconstructed simply by mapping my known associates, even if I could erase my own digital trail.

More liberals like this Morozov fellow need to expose this better. Only people voluntarily withdrawing from the tackiest parts of the Web will move us back towards the comfortable privacy we once enjoyed, that same "right" Roe allegedly was built upon.

Seeing Red said...

They only way at this point is to use cash so they don't track you. Am I secure in my person? Should I be paid? Europe has a problem with google. Let them release thei tax returns and their medical information.

rhhardin said...

It would mean more appropriate ads, you'd hope. Instead Amazon offers me off-the-wall junk suggestions.

SJ said...


For some reason, I'm reminded of a statement by G.K. Chesterton.

He was talking about the difference between Determinism (human actions are generally not free, but are determined by climate and outside forces) and Free Will.

His example was various methods of dealing with law-breakers.

Determinism is not inconsistent with the cruel treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps) inconsistent with is the generous treatment of criminals; with any appeal to their better feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle.

The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment.

He must not say to the sinner, "Go and sin no more," because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.

(from Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, Chapter 2.)

While this is far from the main point of the post, it does relate to the core question.

Are people free to decide how to respond to the incentives of Big Data?

Or are people only free to respond to environmental incentives created by Big Data?

damikesc said...

I agree with the author. That these high-tech firms have precious little problems profiling you to within an inch of your life is showing why the internet was never going to be what it could've been.

Ann Althouse said...

"It would mean more appropriate ads, you'd hope. Instead Amazon offers me off-the-wall junk suggestions."

I think there need to be ads to monetize the websites, and I'd prefer ads that offer me things I like.

Is it too creepy? The other day I was looking at a hotel chain's website, considering making a reservation, but I left without buying. The next day I got served an ad for that hotel chain making a buy 2 nights get one free offer.

I clicked through and the per-night charge was also less than I'd seen the day before. I ended up paying about half of what I would have paid for 3 nights by leaving without buying and then responding to their ad trying to pull me back.

How creepy is that?

I saved about as much as that guy in the anecdote at the beginning of the TNR article made from selling his whole package of personal data (to a company that could then reuse it).

Seems to me: there are a lot of markets here and a lot of products offered for free use.

It's not like the nefarious companies are delving into our souls in some deep and intrusive way.

Any time I go to a hotel I'm giving the hotel the idea that I probably like its product. It's not too personal.

tim maguire said...

I have no problem with people selling their personal data. What I have a problem with is its being covertly taken. And it's especially galling to have the people who took it dismissing my concerns with a flip, "privacy is dead -- get over it."

Ironically, my search for the source of that line led me to this article in The New Republic:

Your Email Address Isn't Personal Information. Get Over It.

JHapp said...

We should tax any business that has personal data yearly per data item like name, age or possible favorite color. This could end the income tax.

Ann Althouse said...

"What I have a problem with is its being covertly taken."

Or is it being casually, unwittingly given?

harrogate said...

The Asange and Snowden phenonena have really ramped up the level of worry (in my view legitimately, by ymmv on that) we are seeing about surveillance. It seems to be very much a good thing that the concern level over surveillance is rising, and I would think that even the most committed Snowden-haters and even most-of-the-most neocon-minded among us, would be glad to see a citizenry's attention rising, to fundamental tensions between individual rights and the "national secutiry" / "free market" tag-team.

harrogate said...

BTW, Glenn Greenwald's interview about Snowden and the Surveillance State generally, on "Fresh Air" today, was really, really interesting and I think Althouse taking on that transcript could make for more than a little awesome.

n.n said...

Human life is a commodity. It was a choice. It has been normalized. In retrospect, it was a bad choice.

Roger Sweeny said...

"Why make an exception for those who want to sell a slice of their intellect and privacy rather than their bodies?"

When Evgeny Morozov sold that article to The New Republic, he sold a slice of his intellect. Should he be permitted to do so?

Shawn Levasseur said...

Privacy is a serious matter.

Unfortunately too much of the "privacy" debate is about the fear of advertising, which I really don't take seriously.