Last year was a landmark for online privacy in many ways, with something of a consensus emerging that consumers deserve protection from the companies that sell their attention and behavior for profit.
The debate now is largely around how to regulate platforms, not whether it needs to happen.
The consensus among key legislators acknowledges that privacy is not just of benefit to individuals but can be likened to public health; a level of protection afforded to each of us helps inoculate democratic societies from manipulation by vested and vicious interests.
The fact that human rights are being systematically abused at population-scale because of the pervasive profiling of Internet users — a surveillance business that’s dominated in the West by tech giants Facebook and Google, and the adtech and data broker industry which works to feed them — was the subject of an Amnesty International report in November 2019 that urges legislators to take a human rights-based approach to setting rules for Internet companies.
“It is now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end,” the charity predicted.
The dystopian outgrowth of surveillance capitalism was certainly in awful evidence in 2019, with elections around the world attacked at cheap scale by malicious propaganda that relies on adtech platforms’ targeting tools to hijack and skew public debate, while the chaos agents themselves are shielded from democratic view.
Platform algorithms are also still encouraging Internet eyeballs towards polarized and extremist views by feeding a radicalized, data-driven diet that panders to prejudices in the name of maintaining engagement — despite plenty of raised voices calling out the programmed antisocial behavior. So what tweaks there have been still look like fiddling round the edges of an existential problem.
Worse still, vulnerable groups remain at the mercy of online hate speech which platforms not only can’t (or won’t) weed out, but whose algorithms often seem to deliberately choose to amplify — the technology itself being complicit in whipping up violence against minorities. It’s social division as a profit-turning service.
The outrage-loving tilt of these attention-hogging adtech giants has also continued directly influencing political campaigning in the West this year — with cynical attempts to steal votes by shamelessly platforming and amplifying misinformation.
From the Trump tweet-bomb we now see full-blown digital disops underpinning entire election campaigns, such as the UK Conservative Party’s strategy in the 2019 winter General Election, which featured doctored videos seeded to social media and keyword targeted attack ads pointing to outright online fakes in a bid to hack voters’ opinions.
Political microtargeting divides the electorate as a strategy to conquer the poll. The problem is it’s inherently anti-democratic.
No wonder, then, that repeat calls to beef up digital campaigning rules and properly protect voters’ data have so far fallen on deaf ears. The political parties all have their hands in the voter data cookie-jar. Yet it’s elected politicians whom we rely upon to update the law. This remains a grave problem for democracies going into 2020 — and a looming U.S. presidential election.
So it’s been a year when, even with rising awareness of the societal cost of letting platforms suck up everyone’s data and repurpose it to sell population-scale manipulation, not much has actually changed. Certainly not enough.
Yet looking ahead there are signs the writing is on the wall for the ‘data industrial complex’ — or at least that change is coming. Privacy can make a comeback.
Adtech under attack
Developments in late 2019 such as Twitter banning all political ads and Google shrinking how political advertisers can microtarget Internet users are notable steps — even as they don’t go far enough.
But it’s also a relatively short hop from banning microtargeting sometimes to banning profiling for ad targeting entirely.