How does the personal data business threaten our individual freedoms?

Article publié le 17 juin 2022

Text by Antonin Gratien taken from Antidote’s « Persona » Issue (Spring-Summer 2022). Photo: Paris Hilton. Translator: Rachel Valinsky.

For several years now, the business model for web behemoths has been based on the relentless collection of data, which is sold at a high price to create ever more precise consumer profiles. This lucrative business, which GAFAM have taken the lion’s share of, drives a kind of capitalism that threatens both individual rights and collective freedoms. But the advent of Web 3.0 could very well put an end to this, realizing the ideal of a decentralized Internet first envisioned by the cypherpunks. Antidote reports.

It’s happened to all of us. Type the name of a pair of sneakers in the Google search bar and the sites you visit, as well as networks you browse, become flooded with related ads. Behind this automation are countless invisible actors of the web ecosystem who pursue a single objective: to fill your e-cart (and, in the process, their pockets).
To lure in customers, what could be more impactful than an ultra-targeted commercial recommendation, based on the massive, systematic, and pervasive collection of our digital traces? Nothing escapes it. Online clothing purchases, tickets to cultural events, porn consumption… In the digital realm, no data is lost – all of it is transformed into hard currency. Billions of dollars of transactions that have turned data into the black gold of the twenty-first century, and the web a land of plenty for intrusive Internet giants. The basic premise? The more transparent the Internet user is, the richer the platforms become, even if it means violating some fundamental rights. More and more media attention is being devoted to this issue, which is mobilizing citizens, national regulators, and advocates of the free web. Might there be a way out on the horizon? 

The Dream of a Libertarian Web

Let’s rewind. Information technology developed in the 1960s in the United States for military telecommunications purposes, before the first decentralized network, Arpanet, emerged in academic circles in 1969. This is referred to as the “proto-Internet.” The Internet as we know it did not actually emerge until twenty years later, with the launch of the World Wide Web – a set of HTML pages featuring images, text, and hyperlinks. This information revolution gave rise to an “autonomous encyclopedic fantasy, good for all and cultivated by all – a bit like today’s Wikipedia,” says Luc de Brabandere, philosopher, and author of Petite Philosophie de la transformation digitale (A brief philosophy of digital transformation) (Manitoba, 2019). But very quickly, this libertarian dream gave way to a mercantile logic based on advertising and set in a legal and fiscal landscape “so desolate that it resembled the Wild West.” Google, for example, made a fortune in the early 2000s by auctioning AdWords to increase its ranking. Then, toward the middle of the decade, Web 1.0, born during the 1990s and characterized by limited interactivity, gave way to Web 2.0 – a participatory space where blogs and social networks flourish. For Facebook, this was an opportunity to set up “a new business model based on the collection and sale of personal data.” A revolution with infinite potential for digital marketing. Whereas “personas” (fictitious effigies representing the typical profiles of potential and prospective customers) were previously drawn up “by hand” by employees using Excel, a multitude of algorithms took over.

Christophe Bruno: “We are witnessing GAFAM’s vampirization of exhibitionist Internet users who, as prey, are being taken advantage of.”

“From that moment on, the circuit became completely opaque,” notes Fabrice Mateo, a journalist and the author of the study La Mort de la vie privée (The death of private life) (Denoël, 2022). “Data scientists, with the help of coders, can now build algorithms capable of reading a multitude of encrypted tables that are incomprehensible to humans.” This raw information is then marketed by data brokers, who haggle like wholesalers for a commodity that the specialist describes as “the raw material of the fourth industrial revolution,” that is becoming increasingly intrusive. All of this is based on cognitive psychology, which has enabled the growth of nudges: behavioral incentive techniques that proliferate on the Internet.
Can GAFAM probe into our private lives so deeply that they know, for instance, whether an individual is homosexual before that person even does? “I’m sure of it,” claims Luc de Brabandere. “These giants do widespread cross-referencing of data that is worthless at the individual level in order to identify global trends – this is what is called ‘metadata.’” It can involve sexual orientation, political opinions, or specific needs. 

The Violation of Personal Freedom

Shoshana Zuboff has analyzed the new context that places profiling at the heart of the digital industry in her influential 2018 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Zulma). The American sociologist and professor emeritus at Harvard describes our entry into an unprecedented economic cycle (namely, surveillance capitalism) in which several digital companies provide “free” services – occasionally under the veil of philanthropic activity – in exchange for the possibility of spying on every detail of users’ behaviors. Luc de Brabandere, for his part, also points to the emergence of the “attention economy: today, value lies not in the information that is disseminated but in the attention that is captured, and ideally, converted into purchases.”
What about users’ privacy rights? “The protection of data is obviously a major challenge, and it relates to several fundamental freedoms,” says Nacera Bekhat, head of the economic affairs department of the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL). According to her, what is at stake is “the protection of privacy, the freedom to come and go anonymously, the right to freedom of expression. And the freedom of political opinion.” The latter was strikingly violated, for instance, by Cambridge Analytica: by exploiting the data of 87 million Facebook users, the company influenced votes in the 2016 United States presidential elections in favor of Donald Trump.

While there is reason to be indignant, few citizen mobilizations followed. It must be said that users are in a somewhat ambiguous position. By checking the “accept” box of website Terms of Service (TOS), each user “consents” to data collection. But this consent is superficial, since almost no one takes the time to read the terms in full, such that we often do not understand their scope or purpose. It could be said that it’s always possible to refuse this exploitation outright, by shutting GAFAM out. However, insofar as these companies enjoy hegemonic monopolies over the Internet, taking this initiative would imply depriving ourselves of very useful, even necessary, tools. And data collection has some plus sides: after all, who isn’t “delighted” to get Netflix’s catalogue of customized recommendations? Data exchange in return for optimized service could be considered a fair trade, for some.
“We are witnessing GAFAM’s vampirization of exhibitionist Internet users who, as prey, are being taken advantage of,” decries Christophe Bruno, a “parasitic artist” and one of the first to have hijacked Google by buying several AdWords in 2002 to redirect user “clicks” to poetic content rather than the standard advertisements.

Multiple Threats

“The intensification of targeted incentives is a decisive issue for our collective future, but not only from the point of view of personal data protection,” says Natacha, an environmental activist who participated in the Extinction Rebellion movement. “In light of contemporary climate challenges, it seems necessary to question the impact of these incentives. Businesses have never had such insidious tools to push for overconsumption.” The second part of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report on climate change, published on February 28, 2022, once again sounded the alarm on the ecological crisis, which remains a major issue. 

In the hands of the Communist regime in mainland China, the collection of data also takes on another dimension: that of mass state surveillance. A social credit system based specifically on big data assigns citizens a score (which grants access to certain services and denies access to others) that can be improved or depreciated according to many factors, including digital interactions. What’s worse: a report by the NGO Human Rights Watch in 2019 denounced the use of a mobile application to track and persecute the Uighur Muslim population, based in the Xinjiang region, of which an estimated one million members are currently interned in camps. “This formula has been seen time and time again, but 1984 is happening there and now,” comments Fabrice Mateo, before anxiously admitting that the perfection of data collection “would have been a dream come true for the worst totalitarian regimes in history.”

New Sources of Concern

The announcement, last October of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, suggests an intensification of profiling. In this three-dimensional digital world where each person will have an avatar via virtual reality, every emotion, step, and exchange could be translated into data. Marketing personas would literally become digital alter egos that know more about us than our loved ones. Without minimizing the risks, Nacera Bekhat nevertheless tries to be reassuring: “The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), voted on by the European legislator in 2016, is a model that has flourished around the world. It is robust and flexible enough to remain effective through technological change of this caliber.”


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Une publication partagée par Le Cube (@lecube_)

According to Clément Thibault, curator and artistic director of Le Cube – a cultural institution in the Paris area that has just inaugurated a gallery dedicated to digital education for young people – artists have a special role to play among the voices speaking out against dangers we are facing. “Since the beginnings of the Internet in the 1990s, artists have mobilized against surveillance and predation. This tradition continues today in the era of data extractivism. For now, we are in a David vs. Goliath situation, but the imaginary strength of these actors could influence the world of tomorrow. Some of them, like Richard Vidgen, are revealing the invisible circuits of the web.”

Web 3.0: A Salutatory Promise or a Speculative Bubble?

When discussing Web 3.0 as a possible way out of the exponential mining of data, artist Christophe Bruno remains skeptical. “I don’t believe in utopias. This new web framework feeds the fantasy, just as 2.0 had done, and 1.0 before it, with outcomes we know all too well.” But others are not so pessimistic. Behind the “buzzword” Web 3.0 – a concept whose contours are still ill-defined – hides a decentralized vision of the Internet aiming to give power back to users through the technological possibilities afforded by blockchain and free protocols. “This is our ray of hope,” Fabrice Mateo remarks enthusiastically, “a beacon that would allow us to emancipate ourselves from third-party intermediaries and to ensure anonymous transactions that prevent the collection of private data.”
It may even reverse the trend, by paying users for the consensual use of this information. Launched in 2018, the smart contracts platform Oasis Labs, for example, not only provides an exhaustive, transparent, and permanent history of the trajectory data has taken, but also allows users to individually monetize its possible resale (via a “tokenization of private data”), thanks to blockchain technology. Instead of a user’s e-mail address being bought without their knowledge and without them receiving a cent, they can impose their conditions, for instance, by authorizing the transmission of this information to third parties in exchange for a commission. Interested in the services offered by Oasis Labs, several companies have already formalized partnerships, including the automotive giant BMW, which wants to strengthen the confidentiality of its employees’ data. And there is proof of the formula’s success: Rose, the cryptocurrency linked to Oasis Labs, had a market capitalization (corresponding to the cumulative value of tokens) of more than 700 million euros in mid-March 2022, thanks to which it is ranked 87th out of the nearly 10,000 cryptocurrencies referenced on the CoinMarketCap website.
Photo: The Sandbox.
On the metaverse side too, several “anti-GAFAM” models are getting a lot of attention, including Decentraland and The Sandbox. Launched as a mobile game in 2011 and boasting 1.6 million users, The Sandbox is a pioneering metaverse ecosystem that evolved into its 3D version in 2017. How does it work? Between two quests, users can build digital assets that shape this open-world sandbox, using software that is accessible even to programming neophytes. Any gamer can then anonymously resell these assets in the form of NFTs via a dedicated cryptocurrency: SAND, ranked 37th on CoinMarketCap in terms of market capitalization. The program is operated according to a non-hierarchical logic – the Decentralized Autonomous Organisation (DAO) – that operates without a central authority, unlike the metaverse envisioned by Facebook or Fortnite. Indeed, on this type of blockchain, code is the law, rather than a handful of individuals who can change the rules as they please. 
Another battlefield, with the same basic logic, has been social networks, where new, emerging players are surfing the Web 3.0 wave. By adopting traditional grammar (posts, likes, etc.), they attempt to overshadow centralized social media in the near future by guaranteeing ad-free browsing. Most importantly, browsing will not be subject to data mining, because the data storage structure is managed by a number of entities rather than by a single mother cell (Snap Inc., Meta…). Exchanges are also encrypted, so as to be protected from government or commercial intrusions, as is the case with Minds, which also has its own cryptocurrency. Based on the Ethereum blockchain and launched in 2015, this system is open source; anyone can contribute to its evolution or maintenance (for a fee, via the Minds token). This is one of the reasons why this network, celebrated by some as the “anti-Facebook,” has been endorsed by Anonymous, which officially called on its supporters to collaborate in the project since its launch.
According to the digital sociologist Laurence Allard, models that exploit blockchain technology are effecting a partial return to “the original architecture of the peer-to-peer Internet.” Rather than echo the technophobic, cyberpunk critique of the Internet, they espouse the technophilic dream of a lesser-known movement: the cypherpunks. This community of activists with a libertarian ethos formed in the 1990s to “deploy decentralized, anonymous, independent, and autonomous communication networks through encryption.” Their way of thinking laid the theoretical foundations for the Bitcoin project, which was invented to propose a monetary system free of trusted third parties (such as central banks), in favor of a computer code acting as a guarantee of reliability. If the apostles of Web 3.0 aim to apply this principle of decentralization outside the financial domain, it remains to be seen whether this trend, beyond the current excitement around crypto-currencies and NFTs, will be able to transform into a lasting counter-power.

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