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The Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics hosted the hearing of the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy from Monday, May 27 to Wednesday, May 29.  Witnesses from at least 11 countries appeared before representatives to testify on how governments can protect democracy and citizen rights in the age of big data.

This section of the hearing, which took place on May 28, includes Shoshana Zuboff’s take on how to tackle the complexities of surveillance capitalism. She has also provided 21st-century solutions to help tackle the same.

Shoshana Zuboff, Author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, talks about economic imperatives within surveillance capitalism. Zuboff says that the unilateral claiming of private human experience, its translation into behavioral data. These predictions are sold in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures. When we deconstruct the competitive dynamics of these markets we get to understand what the new imperatives are, which are, Scale: as they need a lot of data in order to make good predictions economies of scale; secondly, scope: they need a variety of data to make good predictions.

She shared a brief quote from a data scientist, which says,

We can engineer the context around a particular behavior and force change. That way we are learning how to rate the music and then we let the music make them dance.

This behavioral modification is systemically institutionalized on a global scale and mediated by a now ubiquitous digital infrastructure.

She further explains the kind of law and regulation needed today will be 21st century solutions aimed at the unique 21st century complexities of surveillance capitalism. She mentioned three arenas in which legislative and regulatory strategies can effectively align with the structure and consequences of surveillance capitalism briefly:

  1. We need lawmakers to devise strategies that interrupt and in many cases outlaw surveillance capitalism‘s foundational mechanisms.
    • This includes the unilateral taking of private human experience as a free source of raw material and its translation into data.
    • It includes the extreme information asymmetries necessary for predicting human behavior.
    • It includes the manufacture of computational prediction products based on the unilateral and secret capture of human experience.
    • It includes the operation of prediction markets that trade in human futures.
  2. From the point of view of supply and demand, surveillance capitalism can be understood as a market failure. Every piece of research over the last decades has shown that when users are informed of the backstage operations of surveillance capitalism they want no part of it, they want protection, they reject it, they want alternatives. We need laws and regulatory frameworks designed to advantage companies that want to break with the surveillance capitalist paradigm. Forging an alternative trajectory to the digital future will require alliances of new competitors who can summon and institutionalize an alternative ecosystem. True competitors that align themselves with the actual needs of people and the norms of market democracy are likely to attract just about every person on earth as their customers.
  3. Lawmakers will need to support new forms of citizen action, collective action just as nearly a century ago workers won legal protection for their rights to organize to bargain and to and to strike. New forms of citizen solidarity are already emerging in municipalities that seek an alternative to the Google-owned Smart City future. In communities that want to resist the social cost of so-called disruption imposed for the sake of others gained and among workers who seek fair wages and reasonable security in the precarious conditions of the so-called gig economy.

She says, “Citizens need your help but you need citizens because ultimately they will be the wind behind your wings, they will be the sea change in public opinion and public awareness that supports your political initiatives.”

“If together we aim to shift the trajectory of the digital future back toward its emancipatory promise, we resurrect the possibility that the future can be a place that all of us might call home,” she concludes.

To know more you can listen to the full hearing video titled, “Meeting No. 152 ETHI – Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics” on ParlVU.

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