Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From the NYT: The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley — and Won

The way Alastair Mactaggart usually tells the story of his awakening — the way he told it even before he became the most improbable, and perhaps the most important, privacy activist in America — begins with wine and pizza in the hills above Oakland, Calif. It was a few years ago, on a night Mactaggart and his wife had invited some friends over for dinner. One was a software engineer at Google, whose search and video sites are visited by over a billion people a month. As evening settled in, Mactaggart asked his friend, half-seriously, if he should be worried about everything Google knew about him. “I expected one of those answers you get from airline pilots about plane crashes,” Mactaggart recalled recently. “You know — ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.’ ” Instead, his friend told him there was plenty to worry about. If people really knew what we had on them, the Google engineer said, they would flip out.

Mactaggart had spent most of his adult life in the Bay Area, running a family real estate business with his uncle. The rise of the tech industry had filled his condo developments with ambitious engineers and entrepreneurs, making Mactaggart a wealthy man. But he never really thought about how companies like Google or Facebook got so big so fast. The vast pools of data they collected and monetized were abstractions, something he knew existed but, as with plane crashes, rarely dwelt on.

Now he began to think about tech companies a lot. He started reading about online tracking and data mining. He discovered that the United States, unlike some countries, has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of personal data. The rules that did exist were largely established by the very companies that most relied on your data, in privacy policies and end-user agreements most people never actually read. Mactaggart began to scrutinize these policies closely, the way he read loan contracts and pored over offering plans. He learned that there was no real limit on the information companies could collect or buy about him — and that just about everything they could collect or buy, they did. They knew things like his shoe size, of course, and where he lived, but also roughly how much money he made, and whether he was in the market for a new car. With the spread of smartphones and health apps, they could also track his movements or whether he had gotten a good night’s sleep. Once facial-recognition technology was widely adopted, they would be able to track him even if he never turned on a smartphone.

All of this, he learned, was designed to help the real customers — advertisers — sell him things. Advertisers and their partners in Silicon Valley were collecting, selling or trading every quantum of Mactaggart’s self that could be conveyed through the click of a mouse or the contents of his online shopping carts. They knew if he had driven past that Nike billboard before finally buying those Air Force 1s. A website might quote him a higher price for a hair dryer if he lived in a particular neighborhood, or less if he lived near a competitor’s store. Advertisers could buy thousands of data points on virtually every adult in America. With Silicon Valley’s help, they could make increasingly precise guesses about what you wanted, what you feared and what you might do next: Quit your job, for example, or have an affair, or get a divorce.

And no one knew more about what people did or were going to do than Facebook and Google, whose free social and search products provided each company with enormous repositories of intimate personal data. They knew what you “liked” and who your friends were. They knew not just what you typed into the search bar late on a Friday night but also what you started to type and then thought better of. Facebook and Google were following people around the rest of the internet too, using an elaborate and invisible network of browsing bugs — they had, within little more than a decade, created a private surveillance apparatus of extraordinary reach and sophistication. Mactaggart thought that something ought to be done. He began to wonder whether he should be the one to do it.

Mactaggart, who is 52 but boyish, did not think of himself as a radical. He often describes himself as a capitalist. He is the kind of man who wears chinos with a braided belt; it is easy to picture him on a sailboat. But his research on privacy had stirred something in him. “It’s like that Buddhist thing, where you walk past a mess and a mop and say, ‘Someone ought to clean up that mess,’ ” he says. “And eventually you realize you have to pick up the mop.”

Over evening walks around his neighborhood, Mactaggart batted around ideas for a new state law with his friend Rick Arney, a finance executive. But Arney, who worked in the California Legislature after business school, suggested a different approach. Instead of going through Sacramento, Arney suggested, they could put the question directly to the people of California, gathering signatures for a statewide ballot initiative. Mactaggart liked the idea. He also had the money to do something with it. Early last year, he hired a small staff, set them up in a two-room office in Oakland and began cold-calling privacy experts to figure out just what his initiative should say.

“I thought it was a joke at first, to be contacted by someone named ‘Alastair Mactaggart,’ ” says Chris Jay Hoofnagle, who teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley. Mactaggart was wary of proposing a sweeping law like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or G.D.P.R., fearing that Californians would find it mystifying and reject it. He wanted a solution that consumers would embrace and Silicon Valley could live with. “I don’t want to kill businesses — I’m a businessman,” Hoofnagle recalls Mactaggart’s telling him. “I just think the data use by these companies is out of control.”

Almost by accident, though, Mactaggart had thrust himself into the greatest resource grab of the 21st century. To Silicon Valley, personal information had become a kind of limitless natural deposit, formed in the digital ether by ordinary people as they browsed, used apps and messaged their friends. Like the oil barons before them, they had collected and refined that resource to build some of the most valuable companies in the world, including Facebook and Google, an emerging duopoly that today controls more than half of the worldwide market in online advertising. But the entire business model — what the philosopher and business theorist Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” — rests on untrammeled access to your personal data. The tech industry didn’t want to give up its powers of surveillance. It wanted to entrench them. And as Mactaggart would soon learn, Silicon Valley almost always got what it wanted.

For most of its relatively brief existence, Silicon Valley has been more lightly regulated than almost any other major industry. The technology that drove the business was complex, and few lawmakers wanted to be seen as standing in the way of a new kind of wealth creation, one that seemed to carry no messy downsides like pollution or global economic collapse. Most of the biggest tech companies could simply ignore Washington — until they grew too big for Washington to ignore. When regulators finally threatened to intervene, the companies did what they were best at: They scaled up, this time not with software and servers but with phalanxes of lobbyists and lawyers.

Microsoft had virtually no Washington presence before the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company in the 1990s. As recently as 2003, Google retained just two outside lobbyists in Washington; over the next decade or so, as it became the world’s dominant search engine, the company became a Beltway heavyweight, hiring lobbyists, wooing regulators and funding the research behind hundreds of Google-friendly studies on competition, copyright law and other topics. By last year, Google’s parent, Alphabet, was spending more money on lobbyists than any other corporation in America.

Facebook, a decade younger than Google, built its political apparatus twice as fast, as if observing a kind of Moore’s Law of influence-peddling. When it went public in 2012, the company had 900 million users — less than half its current size — and earned a relatively modest profit of $53 million. Over the next several years, Facebook simultaneously became one of the world’s biggest collectors of personal data and a powerful presence in Washington and beyond. It acquired Instagram, a rival social media platform, and the messaging service WhatsApp, bringing Facebook access to billions of photos and other user data, much of it from smartphones; formed partnerships with country’s leading third-party data brokers, such as Acxiom, to ingest huge quantities of commercial data; and began tracking what its users did on other websites. Smart exploitation of all that data allowed Facebook to target advertising better than almost anyone, and by 2015, the company was earning $4 billion a year from mobile advertising. Starting in 2011, Facebook doubled the amount of money it spent on lobbying in Washington, then doubled it again. The company employed just 10 lobbyists in state capitals around the country in 2012, according to my analysis of data collected by the National Institute on Money in Politics. By the time Mactaggart and Arney began work on their privacy initiative, it had 67. The tech industry was particularly powerful in California, its home base, where it doled out millions in campaign contributions to state candidates and parties.

But until recently, companies like Facebook and Google also had something that Wall Street and Big Oil and the cable companies didn’t. To many people in Washington, they were the good guys. Through the Obama years, the tech industry enjoyed extraordinary cachet in Washington, not only among Republicans but also among Democrats. Partnering with Silicon Valley allowed Democrats to position themselves as pro-business and forward-thinking. The tech industry was both an American economic success story and a political ally to Democrats on issues like immigration. Google enjoyed particularly close ties to the Obama administration: Dozens of Google alumni would serve in the White House or elsewhere in the administration, and by one estimate Google representatives visited the White House an average of about once a week. But the Obama world had relationships with other firms too. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, served on a high-level Obama advisory council on jobs and held a fund-raiser for Obama’s re-election campaign at her home in Atherton, Calif. The founders of Twitter, LinkedIn and the app developer Zynga together contributed more than $2 million to a pro-Obama super PAC.

And increasingly, Silicon Valley had come to transform politics itself. As Mactaggart considered how to take on the data industry, he faced an American political establishment that saw the key to its future in companies like Google and Facebook — not because of whom they supported but because of what they did. The surveillance capitalists didn’t just sell more deodorant; they had built one of the most powerful tools ever invented for winning elections. Roughly the same suite of technologies helped elect Obama, a pragmatic liberal who promised racial progress and a benevolent globalism, and Trump, a strident nationalist who adeptly employs social media to stoke racial panic and has set out to demolish the American-led world order.

Full NYT Article

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