As little as 40 years ago, the world was devoid of the Internet, an invention that has since gone on to become an essential structure for individuals, companies, and governments alike. The role that the Internet plays in the lives of billions around the world is undeniable and has, like most other revolutionary inventions, changed the world for the better and, unfortunately, the worse.
One way in which the Internet has negatively affected our lives is the insidious rise of surveillance capitalism, which refers to the collection of the personal information of Internet users for monetization purposes. Surveillance capitalism has been fueled by the rise of technology and the digital revolution, more and more data has become digitized and privacy and security concerns have skyrocketed.
The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism
Surveillance capitalism, a term coined by Professor Shoshana Zuboff, relies on collecting sensitive information about Internet users and using that information to send targeted advertisements or selling it to third-parties. This information can include anything from the user’s search activity to conversations on social media — not only is it collected for the purpose of understanding the user’s behavior but also, in a far more deceptive turn of events, to influence it. In particular, this term was used by Zuboff to describe the phenomenon of big tech companies like Google and Facebook convincing users to give up sensitive data for the sake of convenience and, in the process, compromising their basic democratic freedoms.
The rise of surveillance capitalism can be carefully tied to the inception of two tech companies: Google and Facebook. After Gmail was launched in 2004, Google admitted to having analyzed personal correspondence between users to scour for personal information. Also in 2004, Facebook was launched and its business model has since become entirely centred on capturing and accessing users’ personal data, with nearly 98% of its annual revenue coming from advertising in 2020. Considering that these two companies alone held the majority of the market share in ad revenue, it is easy to understand their motivations for having ready access to users’ personal data.
More recently, surveillance capitalism has evolved to include predictive algorithms and mathematical calculations that can predict how humans will behave, which has even darker implications clearly highlighted through various events, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Snowden leak; both showing how surveillance capitalism has permeated and influenced our decisions in all areas, up to the way we vote.
For obvious reasons, this alarms users who often express shock and concerns over the handling of their data without their express approval and to their detriment. However, there are many ways in which users are unknowingly consenting to these companies dealing with their private data.
The Trigger Finger
Every time users sign up for an account on a website, they have to agree to the Terms and Conditions of the relevant site before they can proceed. Studies have shown that an alarming number of users click accept without even reviewing the relevant documents. An intriguing experiment conducted by Professor Jonathan Obar of York University and Professor Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch of the University of Connecticut analyzed the actions of 543 students when presented with the terms of service of a fake website called NameDrop. Out of the 543, only a quarter even read the terms of service. However, they clearly did not read them well enough since paragraph 2.3.1 of the terms of service mentioned that they agreed to give NameDrop their future first-born children. Out of 543, all agreed to accept the terms of service.
That’s not even the worst part: research has revealed that the younger generation is even more trigger happy than older ones. Deloitte conducted a survey of 2,000 consumers across the US and the findings were alarming, to say the least. Out of the 2,000, 91% admitted to never reading the legal terms and conditions before accepting them. For those within the 18 to 34 age bracket, this proportion was even higher, with 97% of respondents admitting to accepting without reading.
These studies highlight an uncomfortable truth: users, especially young ones, are willing to waive their rights while being completely unaware of which rights they’re giving up in the first place, creating the perfect opportunity for companies to exploit this gap in knowledge as much as possible. The qualitative findings from the second study suggested that users tend to view policies as nuisances and an inhibition to the ends they are trying to pursue. Perhaps younger generations, being the generations that grew up in a world that had already begun to digitize, are accustomed to a certain level of ease and convenience, which policies and contracts tend to get in the way of. Additionally, they do not hold the same level of skepticism that older generations generally do toward the digital revolution.
The Duplicity of the Design
However, it is not simply users’ trigger fingers that contribute to this problem. In fact, most click-to-accept pages are designed in a way that encourages users to click away without giving it a second thought. This was shown through a study conducted by Professor Rainer Böhme of UC Berkeley and Professor Stefan Köpsell of Technische Universität, who conducted a survey on 80,000 participants to test the effects of alternative wordings of a consent form on user’s decisions. The study found that users who were told that their consent was required and presented with the “I accept” option were 26% more likely to agree than those who were politely asked for their participation with “yes” or “no” as the options.
The results of this can be interpreted to mean that when design encourages people to consider their decisions, they will. When, on the other hand, the design is deliberately formulated to make users click on the “I accept” button, that is what more users will opt for. Many websites actually employ this in their pop-ups for cookies, in which the accept button has a stark colour that catches the user’s eye while the decline or more options buttons tend to be the same colour as the background and, thus, do not stand out.
What Can We Do?
The problem of surveillance capitalism is a particularly gnarly one — even if consumers are aware to some extent of how they can give websites access to their data, there is little that they can do about it. In most cases, not accepting cookies on a website means that users are effectively barred from visiting the website. This means that users will have to opt for giving up their data if they really need to use a website.
This highlights the necessity of having stringent government regulations to protect users from the perils of surveillance capitalism. The European Union GDPR is one example of a law that advanced the protection of user privacy on the Internet by restricting the ways in which data can be collected and utilized. The key takeaways from the legislation are that companies have to be completely transparent with users about why their data is being collected, what it is being used for, and gives consumers the right to access the data companies store about them and correct incorrect information.
While laws like the GDPR arm individuals with the means to defend themselves against invasions of their online privacy, they are fruitless if individuals are not aware of them in the first place. For example, being informed about the right to erasure granted under this law ensures that you can have your personal data erased from company databases in certain conditions. A more concentrated effort by individuals, particularly young ones, about the threats to their online privacy and the laws that can safeguard it is necessary to ensure the protection of their democratic freedoms.