The Surveillance Economy Must Die

Life after Facebookistan; balancing transparency & data privacy in grantmaking; and more.


  • In case you didn’t watch all five hours of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal pinpoints the most important exchange.

  • “Like Google, which says its mission is to organize the world’s information, Facebook has relentlessly messaged its prime directive: to connect the world (something that the internet on which it’s built has long been doing),” BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel snarkily writes. “But unlike Google, Facebook’s never been able to articulate what that mission might hope to achieve. Instead, it relies on a vague notion of techno-utopianism—that connecting the world is a universal good and should happen at all costs, as internal communications obtained by BuzzFeed News have revealed. But despite such ambitions, the company has never truly articulated what’s in it for us if the company succeeds in its ultimate goal. Facebook says its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” That’s a fun thing to say on an investor page, but it leaves a lingering question: Okay, but then what?”

  • “What America really needs is a smarter conversation about data usage,” Cathy O’Neil argues for Bloomberg View. “If politicians want to create rules, they should start by narrowly addressing the worst possible uses for our personal information—the ways it can be used to deny people job opportunities, limit access to health insurance, set interest rates on loans and decide who gets out of jail. Essentially any bureaucratic decision can now be made by algorithm, and those algorithms need interrogating way more than Zuckerberg does.”

  • Douglas Rushkoff, on the other hand, opined on CNN that the only solution is a Facebook competitor that prioritizes users. “Given the power of digital technology to promote the interests of the corporations it serves, asking the company to work against its core programming seems futile,” he writes. “The only real answer—the seemingly unthinkable one—is to build an alternative network that has a different funding model, be it a public utility, sustainable nonprofit or paid service.”

  • Must read: Personally, I favor the solution put forward by David Dayen in The New Republic: Ban targeted advertising.

    “The surveillance economy should die,” Dayen writes. “This manner of advertising doesn’t serve the public and it’s not even clear it serves advertisers. It facilitates monopoly, as those with the biggest data troves receive all the ad dollars. That centralizes the potential for and magnitude of abuse, with Big Data used to discriminate against groups, steer vulnerable people to financial scams, and meddle in U.S. elections.” YESSS.

  • Harold Feld is on board with this, writing on the blog Wetmachine that better privacy protections won’t kill Facebook. “history tells us that advertising can support free content just fine without needing to know every detail of our lives to serve us unique ads tailored to an algorithms best guess about our likes and dislikes based on multi-year, detailed surveillance of our every eye-muscle twitch,” Feld writes. “Despite the unfortunate tendency of social media to drive toward the most extreme arguments even at the best of times, “privacy regulation” is hardly an all or nothing proposition. We have a lot of room to address the truly awful problems with data collection and storage of personal information before we start significantly eating into the potential revenue of Facebook and other advertising supported media.” YESSSS.

  • Across the pond, Facebook is facing a different kind of pressure, as the Irish High Court has now asked the EU’s top court to investigate the legality of Facabook’s practice of transferring Europeans’ data to the United States, Conor Humphries and Julia Fioretti report for Reuters.

  • Near futures: In a new paper for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Allison Fine and Beth Kanter ask how automation can be harnessed for good. “So before the bots become involved with almost every facet of our lives, it is incumbent upon those of us in the nonprofit and social-change sectors to start a discussion on how we both hold on to and lead with our humanity, as opposed to allowing the bots to lead,” they write. “We are unprepared for this moment, and it does not feel like an understatement to say that the future of humanity relies on our ability to make sure we’re in charge of the bots, not the other way around.”

  • Laia Grino, director of data discovery at Foundation Center, discusses walking the thin line between transparency and data protection in grantmaking.

  • A new report by Fast Forward analyzed the diversity of tech nonprofits, and found 47 percent of organizations have a woman founder and 30 percent were founded by a racial or ethnic minority, significantly more than in the for-profit technology sector.

  • Job board: The America Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization is looking for a director of data, analytics, and infrastructure. Learn more and apply here.

  • The Sierra Club is looking for a national online organizer to lead their Climate Parents and Ready for 100 campaigns. Learn more and apply here.