Think a Privacy Law Will Stop Surveillance Capitalism? You Don't Know Google

Big Tech's business model isn't threatened by the prospect of new data privacy laws, says one VC. FAANG firms are too nimble, powerful and ingenious.

AccessTimeIconMar 20, 2020 at 3:45 p.m. UTC
Updated Dec 10, 2022 at 8:31 p.m. UTC

Alex McDougall is the co-founder of Bicameral Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on blockchain, interoperability, data and identity self-sovereignty, personalized AI and Web 3.0.

The business model where users with the fewest privacy settings are the most profitable. The opaque data policies that routinely top 10,000 words and legal experts agree are nonsensical. The use of trackers and pixels to allow data players to reach far outside their own domain and index web traffic not even remotely attached to the “services” they offer. Especially the data and content creators who are routinely either completely excluded or massively de-prioritized when it comes to divvying up the value of the platforms they power. Our data paradigm has been broken for a while now.

We generally acknowledge this break with some form of “yeah, I know Google is building an archetype of me for their own purposes, but what else am I gonna do? Plus look how pretty their site is!” Regulators acknowledge this challenge and there have been well-meaning attempts to legislate a better outcome to this with privacy focused legislations such as GDPR and CCPA. These laws are well-intentioned, but I believe fatally incomplete in two ways. 

First, until you either fix the fundamental mismatch of privacy and profit, or alter the system by which investors expect ever increasing quarterly earnings, we will never get a real “private” future led by today’s tech giants. They are too nimble, too powerful, too incentivized by profits and operate in a world that’s too ill defined to be shackled by slow-moving legislation. Legislation that can be innovated around or worse, repurposed for their own intentions.

Secondly, especially in a post COVID-19 virtualized world, “privacy” by forced disconnection is NOT what we need. Prior to this devastating global outbreak, despite mounting work from home and virtual office technology, the majority of business still happens face to face. That’s especially true of the high-value “closing” type interactions and the high-value networking engagements (the real point of conferences!). 

Legislation that can be innovated around or worse, repurposed for their own intentions.

Same story with social interactions. Yes, social media has been the defining force of our past 15 years, but the majority of the important interactions in our lives still happen in person, especially the high-emotional-engagement interactions (romance, family gatherings). 

Same story with health and wellness. You learn digitally, but execute treatment plans in person. We don’t need further disconnection, we need a new digital paradigm to replace our most important interactions without completely losing our humanity.

What happens when 'in person' doesn’t exist?

You may recognize a correlation here between the things we generally do in person and the events that would be most valuable for current data players to observe and model. For example, buy decisions, romantic choices and family dynamics. Up until now, you’ve always been able to, at least somewhat convincingly, “opt-out” of the data paradigm. While it’s a wrench to leave Facebook when all your friends and family are there, it’s possible. You can live without Facebook.

In the future, it may be impossible to leave society’s dominant data matrix behind. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing widespread isolating lockdowns and sweeping social distancing measures, we’re about to enter into a world of unprecedented digital mediation. Our digital mediators, with all-time low trust and all-time power high, are about to get even more omnipotent in our lives. 

See also: Lindsey Barrett - When Corporations Violate Privacy, They Do Concrete Harm

Unfortunately, privacy by itself isn’t the answer to this; it would be a lot simpler if it was. Our data feeds are the lifeblood of our digital personas and our digital personas are about to become our only personas. Slowing down and blocking them at a time where we’re about to lose our ability to physically connect is a recipe for isolation socially and economically. 

In the current world, we don’t have control over our digital personas. They are generated, enhanced, tailored and monetized in the shadows. The profiles are rich and detailed and, in some cases, incredibly accurate. Have a look at what Google knows about you sometime. 

More privacy without fixing the underlying paradigm isn’t what we need.

Why don’t we have the infrastructure we can control? I can see my Google profile and even download an Excel of it. Why isn’t there a secure vehicle where I take that Google profile, correct what’s wrong and supplement it with my Twitter, Netflix, Lyft, Apple Health, government ID, health and personal information to make a real digital version of me that I can use to connect and share myself? 

There are many reasons, including slow emerging distributed technology and strong consumer inertia, that this doesn’t exist today. But this user-controlled, 360-degree, digital profile is what’s going to form the kernel of a world where we can capture some semblance of our valuable physical interactions, in a digital setting. 

More privacy without fixing the underlying paradigm isn’t what we need. We need more rich data to make better algorithms and more virtual spaces that facilitate deeper, self-sovereign digital interactions. Here are three key pieces of infrastructure, as I see it:

  • A mechanism by which new reams of data accrue to the user first and then are shared onwards or made available only at the user’s discretion
  • A suite of digital tools, products and algorithms that are built to only ask for the minimum amount of data necessary to achieve their goal. Further, in certain highly sensitive situations, these tools must be able to have the data processed entirely within a provably private “black-box” execution environment
  • A “data-supply chain” mechanism by which data can be traced from its raw creation through to its final commercial use and value shared with creators, algorithm makers and any other necessary stakeholders along the way

Sounds like a lot of stuff to build right? Luckily, we have a secret weapon: Our data is exponentially more valuable when we’re sharing it willingly. Google has become one of the most valuable companies on Earth by quietly trying to run digital simulations of all of us. Still, the value of  years of surveillance is a tiny fraction of the value of you or I filling out an honest 10-minute survey. 

We’re at a tipping point. We need to re-orient our data paradigm away from the “abstract and extract” model to one where individuals and businesses  start our own digital identities. We need the tools, products, ecosystem and user willingness to adopt this new world. It won’t be an overnight solution. But the economics of shared data can be incredible, and the reward for getting it done is nothing less than the salvation of integrity and humanity in our post-COVID world of digital interactions.


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