Chapter 5 – The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete
The Extraction Imperative
Extracting behavioral surplus is the main aim of surveillance capitalists’ strategy: offer as many products as possible, all of which capture the behavioral surplus data AND provide opportunities to show ads that satisfy the firms’ customers. This drive will be looked at in this chapter as “supply operations.”
In the world of Surveillance Capitalism, monopolies like Google’s are not about edging out competition in order to raise prices for the consumer, but rather about companies cornering all the behavioral surplus data, by covering as many surfaces as possible in the consumer’s online life (meaning as many products being out there to create the behavioral data supply). What ends up being cornered is ourselves, the consumers, and we have little choice. For example: Android and its open source ecosystem, where users have little choice but to use it.
Beyond their products that consumers actively and knowingly use, Google and other major platforms track consumers across properties online even when they are not directly using their products: cookies. Many studies over the years have surfaced that show how a handful of companies track the majority of users online. And this tracking happens through websites AND apps, making all ecosystems impacted.
The Dispossession Cycle
In this section, Zuboff separates out 4 consecutive steps in the extraction of behavioral surplus, which can (and are) repeated by Google over time:
1 – incursion: invasion of the nonmarket spaces of everyday life with features, convenience, storage, and other advantages in order to mine behavioral data, until resistance is met (usually reputational or legal challenges to its forays).
2 – habituation: while the resistance to the incursion is getting organized on very long timelines (institutional enquiries always take years to come to fruition, etc…), an ecosystem of stakeholders is created around the new extraction operation, astonishment and outrage dissipate among users, and everyone gets used to the new operation.
3 – adaptation: when institutional enquiries, court rulings, etc. catch up to Google, they adapt their products to address the specific points that were contested, but not the whole operation of data extraction.
4 – redirection: Google finds a way to have slightly different collection methods of behavioral surplus that conforms to the adaptation that happened in the previous step, and continues its operations mostly untouched.
Zuboff then illustrates this cycle using the example of Google Streetview.
The Dogs of Audacity
Seeing the success of the dispossession cycle with Streetview (hoovering all the public space data into its data centers), Google then launched into even more audacious projects, like Buzz in the social media world (which was a privacy nightmare according to Zuboff), and Google Glass, which was using humans themselves as the agent that facilitated the incursion stage of the cycle. Zuboff’s use of the glass example helps us to understand what that last “redirection” step actually refers to: it is essentially a term she uses to describe a strategic pivot (like Glass going the B2B route, for example).
Google’s success soon spurred others to launch themselves in the surveillance capitalism game, Facebook being the first one to join, famously launching the “like button” across the internet, essentially tracking users everywhere. The company’s progress into users’ privacy was stronger and more blatant than anything seen before. And Google followed a few years later, in 2016, by combining Doubleclick browsing history data with other Google properties. Microsoft soon joined the fray when Nadella took over, first with some efforts to increase data collection related to its Bing search engine, and then by launching Cortana, along a similar dispossession cycle plan. MS replicated what the others did, combining its different products, obfuscating privacy controls, and hoovering as much personal data as possible, in parts through its Windows 10 OS, which was a watershed in terms of invasiveness.
The Siren Song of Surveillance Revenues
One step further, ISPs seem determined to also compete in the surveillance data bonanza. Verizon was the first one, with the creation of PrecisionID: the ability for Verizon to track each of its clients everywhere across the web, originally without their knowledge. And others followed. Verizon further consolidated its efforts by buying AOL, which was led by Tim Armstrong, an original executive who worked on AdWords and could bring the logic of surveillance capitalism to the company. Also, Verizon moved the PrecisionID technology to the AOL advertising network. Which meant that by the time the fines and obligations of providing opt-out options came around (late as usual, as per the dispossession cycle), Verizon had already gone through the redirection stage…
In an unprecedented intervention, in 2016 the FCC ruled that ISPs needed opt-in consent to collect data from users for advertising purposes. Since this did not apply to Internet companies, Verizon bought the core business of Yahoo to continue competing with Google and Facebook. This was moot though, since in 2017, the US Congress revoked the FCC ruling. Essentially, Zuboff highlights that this moment was when the myth of “free” products being the reason for surveillance capitalism exploded in mid-air: even paying customers of a mobile internet connection were legally tracked by their own networks, and their personal data rejoined the behavioral surplus databases.
And if “surveillance capitalism” was born digital, it is now widely spread among all kinds of industries.