Law in the Internet Society

Technological ignorance

The problem

The problem for me and like-minded people in my generation, is that we consume technology ignorantly. Power preys on ignorance, making us the ideal target market. Indeed, I see a product, whether it be Facebook, an iPhone or a digital assistant, and believe that I am buying or subscribing to the product that I can see. I use it, and continue to use it, because it is convenient and because transitioning out of using it seems highly inconvenient. This convenience is directly tied to the immense volumes of data that these products have gathered about me as they offer me what they know I will like and want. Meanwhile, my technological ignorance maintains my distance from the complexity and power of the software behind these technologies, which I cannot see or understand.

Piercing the veil

With the benefit of this class, the Cambridge Analytica episode and heightened scrutiny, I have come to understand that such products, if they can be called products, are used to mask their makers' real business: the business of gathering data about me, and the majority of consumers who are like me, through our behavioral interactions with these technologies. As this data is the prized aspect of this system, we effectively become these businesses' real asset and product. It is the invisibility of this effort; what Daniel Norman describes as the "bur[ying of] the technology [so] that the user is not even aware of its presence", that perpetuates ignorance, cements a structure of power, and belies the truth that the end-consumer-facing-product is merely a means to an end.

Ideal environment for misuse of power

At a time when government, law enforcement and private businesses are preoccupied with ascertaining people's identities and predicting behaviors, information concerning who someone is, how they relate to other people and to whom they may be connected becomes incredibly valuable. It is therefore unsurprising that they find these data-collection businesses attractive. It follows that the companies collecting such data, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, are prone to redirecting the information they gather beyond their private hands. This is evidenced by information request reports (eg. Facebook and Amazon). Indeed, as Moglen and Choudhary identify, "the mere collection of all that information about billions of people in a few hands ensures that it will be misused".

This misuse is facilitated on the premise of ignorant consumer consent. As Boughman observes, consumers "agree to sacrifice some degree of privacy to enrich the user experience" for convenience. This is done on the basis that consumers' information will be used to "improve the quality of the product or service" (eg. Facebook and Amazon's privacy policies). However, as this term is never fully defined, the limits to which this information can be used are unclear. Due to this consent - albeit misguided - and the identity-driven nature of the information, the Fourth Amendment, which attaches to people's reasonable expectation of privacy in their persons, houses, papers and effects from unreasonable search, offers limited, if any, protection vis--vis searching of identities.

The basis for ignorance

The success of these products' disguise and the maintenance of consumers' ignorance is common irrespective of their physical manifestations. Indeed, whether it be Facebook, the iPhone or digital assistants, the buried business model of behavior collection remains constant. All products effectively veil this ignorance through an appeal to human emotion rather than intellect, a constant demand for human attention and capitalizing on convenience.

In terms of convenience, all of these technologies centralize disparate services, thereby making life easier. They also use the information they receive to personalize your experience and present information they know will demand that consumer's particular attention. Their emotional appeal is obtained via the humanization of the technology to make it responsive and emotionally engaging. While the "endless flow of attention-seeking 'content'" demands initial interaction, the fact that the interaction is felt by the technology and is acknowledged or validated through its response in emitting stimuli, encourages further engagement. Thus, a cycle of engagement is created that secures maximum human interaction and behavior-collection opportunities. Whilst this occurs on Facebook predominantly through the power of the Like as people Like to feel liked, thereby keeping them connected to Facebook, Amazon's more recent Alexa seems to take this humanization even further. Indeed, as Romano notes, "Amazon has gone to great pains to present Alexa as a persona, if not an actual person…[with] personality". By having people "talk to a machine like it's a she and having "her" talk back", Alexa carries on the illusion, perpetuates ignorance, and most importantly, masks "what is still very much an 'it'" - a data-collection device for a highly profitable company. Thus, ultimately the invisibility of these companies' data-collection efforts, and the techniques employed to achieve this invisibility, ensure consumers' ignorance and enables this ulterior motive.

Way forward

Irrespective of the precise use these companies make of one's personal data, it is clear that personal information about consumers' behavior is being delivered beyond the company or sold onto outside third parties. Even just the potential for profit-motivated companies to decide how to use such data, when as Aral Balkan observes, "data about us is us", is problematic and illustrates consumers' relative powerlessness. This is exacerbated by the fact that these companies are taking significant steps to deliberately hide what they are doing, which enables the perpetuation of ignorance.

Whilst there are clearly fundamental breaches of privacy that must be addressed as consumers ought to have the right to determine the use of their information, for example by implementing rules that safeguard a holistic view of privacy comprised of secrecy, anonymity and autonomy rights, the urgent problem seems to be that of both consumers' and lawmakers' technological ignorance. Unless people are able to understand these products and recognize that they are merely part of a deliberately designed organism for behavior collection, the power of these companies and their machines over people will be unwavering, and the effect of rules and regulations misguided and ineffective.

I think this was a very effective set of revisions along the lines my comments on the last draft suggested. It vindicates both your original choices and the modifications I thought would make improvement, which they do.

At the end of the process, it should be clear, you have explicitly identified an educational deficit which is also the act of learning we are performing together. That should imply the possibility of further learning for other people. It should also imply the possibility of your being part of the relationships that teach them. So if there were to be a further set of revisions in your thinking, whether or not in this essay form, they might center around how you can—to offer a recent cliche—be the change you want to see in the world.

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r6 - 01 Apr 2018 - 14:21:31 - EbenMoglen
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