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Ask HN: A simple solution to limit surveillance capitalism?
18 points by throw_awy_1 17 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 25 comments
Not an original idea but I'd be interested in HN's perspective.

Can we reduce “surveillance capitalism” by reducing the incentive to collect personal data? Personal data is primarily collected and used by the advertising industry. Large ad companies such as Facebook and Google already admit that microtargeting with personal data is being misused. Google voluntarily restricts targeting for political advertising [1] while Facebook has called for legislation [2].

If we were to simply ban the use of personal data beyond a few key items like age, gender and zip code for delivering ads there would be less reason to collect more data. Advertising companies will still earn ample profit from their ads with contextual targeting (e.g. showing ads related to search terms or related to the topic of a post or news item being displayed on the screen) and coarse grained targeting.

The simplicity of the rule would simpler to understand and enforce and would be much less prone to loopholes exploited by the sophisticated legal teams at the largest advertising companies. This creates a more level playing field between large and small companies perhaps enabling increased competition.

Banning targeted advertising is not a panacea for protecting personal data. Other industries can still extract value including insurance companies that may adjust prices up or down based on your data or retailers may offer discounts or enhanced services to its most profitable customers. Even so by restricting the most profitable and prevalent misuse of personal data perhaps we can protect it.

What do you think? Would this work?

Further reading: > https://newrepublic.com/article/147887/ban-targeted-advertising-facebook-google > https://www.wired.com/story/why-dont-we-just-ban-targeted-advertising/

1 [https://www.blog.google/technology/ads/update-our-political-ads-policy/] 2 [https://about.fb.com/news/2020/01/political-ads/]




It would be interesting if it were possible to create a tool of some sort that distorts your personal data and or floods irrelevant data along with it so it is not so easily collected. For example any time your location is provided it also sends 9 randomized locations, every time you click a google search 9 other random clicks occur on other pages etc, so instead of getting relevant data you are getting a dataset of largely irrelevant data with the goods buried within.


Its quite challenging to anonymize location data. With your example one would simply observe these sets of 10 locations and then look for the most realistic route between them, fully deanonymizing the location.


Sorry. I doubt with their army of lobbyists and influence this will work. They will simply get the rules interpreted in their favor. Historically there is only one example I know of where corporations changed their bad behavior. First the tobacco companies only admitted that smoking caused cancer and changed their marketing after the 46 states attorneys generals sued and won $200 billion plus payments into perpetuity to recoup the medical costs of treating tobacco patients. Only the threat of a lawsuit that will bankrupt them will get them to change their ways.


Hommomorphic computing techinques. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homomorphic_encryption


How much research have you done in political space? This sounds naive.

Far better to spoil the milk (like in that STNG episode) and prove the data gathered to be nonsense or at the very least useless. Fund a few white papers that say such a thing. Best in a few different disciplines. Research is going to be far cheaper and efficient and effective than political pressure (of which I suppose you have none to use).

Also, making this happen will take at least one hyper-charismatic individual, probably an older white man, several tens of millions of dollars to fund it and a fleet of students to make it happen. Just throwing those numbers out there, no research to back it up.

> simply ban

????

like simply asteroid mining?


Personal data is collected, though often not reused or shared by many industries other than advertising.

For example, many organizations proactively collect emergency contact information: your employer, sports clubs, recreation companies (rafting, zipline,...).


True, though collecting personal data for legitimate business purposes is not really a problem in my estimation. The ban on targeted advertising would not effect this.

Banning targeted ads is a much more focused solution to try to limit the excessive and harmful collection of personal data.


> simply ban

When you're up against billion-dollar corporations with lobbyists and PACs, there's no "simply" there.

GDPR has been twisted and watered down from "don't collect non-essential private data" into "slap an annoying cookie notice that makes the government look stupid, and continue business as usual".


While lobbying is a problem, your comment dramatically exaggerates the issue. GDPR brought a lot of positive change, the best of it being the right to delete your data, and ask what data someone has on you.


Get active in lawmaking. That's the only way. You have to fight corporate political power with people political power. The details of the bill usually come later. Start with organizing and walkouts, done collectively would be a great first step.


Certainly agree on the process of gaining support but thought we should test the idea a bit first. Also interested in framing the conversation a bit differently.

Do you see any obvious issues with banning targeted advertising?


Devil's advocate:

2 advantages to targeted advertising.

Targeted advertising if done correctly can connect people who want to buy stuff with people who produce stuff with a minimum of waste. People are able to waste less time and energy discovering what to buy and companies are able to waste less time and energy producing things that people don't want.

Targeted advertising can also enable companies to effectively communicate their value propositions more effectively to local communities, and will allow companies to resist the temptation to support efforts through laws/lobbying/etc. to 'flatten' culture; companies can now embrace rather than steamroll differences in communities.


>Targeted advertising if done correctly can connect people who want to buy stuff with people who produce stuff with a minimum of waste.

What exactly is the waste? I'm assuming you're saying the advertiser doesn't "waste" money by advertising to folks he doesn't think will be receptive to his message. That may be true bit it's not necessarily a societal benefit. It's also most enriching the targeting companies, not saving the producers in this case. Google et al still collect the money that would have been spent on untargeted ads.

> People are able to waste less time and energy discovering what to buy and companies are able to waste less time and energy producing things that people don't want.

This seems a very generous and ad friendly interpretation that ignores other costs. Are there people who need Juul? Are there people who need fattening foods and soda? Is it possible that advertisers will prey on people's insecurities to sell them magic beauty creams?

>Targeted advertising can also enable companies to effectively communicate their value propositions more effectively to local communities, and will allow companies to resist the temptation to support efforts through laws/lobbying/etc. to 'flatten' culture; companies can now embrace rather than steamroll differences in communities.

Not sure what is being said here? If you don't by my product I'll lobby for laws you don't like in your jurisdiction?

At the same time we seem to be ignoring all the costs to targeted advertising including the main point of this suggestion, the adversarial collection of personal data but there are others side effects as well.


> What exactly is the waste?

Companies are less likely to overproduce unwanted goods when the known buyers and sellers are easily predicted and/or connected. This is environmentally beneficial, for one. My argument was that targeted advertising helps that.

> This seems a very generous and ad friendly interpretation that ignores other costs.

The question "where do we draw the line for X to be illegal because of bad effects Y" can't be the job of the advertising industry to determine, because advertisers are not scientists and are only incidentally any type of educator. There is no advertising industry for illegal products; if a product or quantity thereof is harmful enough it should be illegal and outside the scope of the industry.

> If you don't by my product I'll lobby for laws you don't like in your jurisdiction?

Not laws ... but let me clarify: Advertising is done through the same medium as entertainment. Therefore, advertising contributes to determining the fate of those mediums, as most media-based entertainment products don't survive when they aren't largely financially supported. Targeted advertising can allow more localized entertainment to exist, thereby preventing monoculture.


Nobody is stopping you from never telling anyone your personal information.


My understanding is that the most important data is the data you don't share actively. Instead your browser / app sends it unbeknownst to you. You don't "tell" facebook where you click and how you scroll, but they have that data anyway. The only choice you have is not to use the products.


I mean sure, but when doing so puts you at a significant disadvantage by not being able to use a vast swath or products and services that argument doesn’t really work.


> Can we reduce “surveillance capitalism” by reducing the incentive to collect personal data?

No. There is a financial incentive and people tend to willingly give their personal data away for free, often for public exploitation.

I am working on solution for this though. My approach is to provide a social application that is point-to-point without any central service. It is inherently private and never anonymous. When people willingness give their data away it is only to somebody they know and encrypted from everyone else. I am starting with file sharing first (trying to wrap it up this week) and then will add messaging and media soon.


Surveillance capitalism seems like a result of power asymmetry between corporation and user - David vs Goliath. It may require a political solution, rather than a technical one (though of course they can work in tandem)


Agree. The suggestion was for a law that bans highly targeted advertising.


I think what's overlooked is the desire to give away personal data. Facebook exists because millions of people don't care (enough) about privacy, for example.

And if we created a body of laws to put personal data entirely in the hands of its owner? There'd still be millions who'd willingly hand it over to participate in 'surveillance capitalism'.


> Can we reduce “surveillance capitalism” by reducing the incentive to collect personal data?

Reduce? Sure. Reduce in a meaningful way? Ambiguous, but the cynic in me says probably not.

> Personal data is primarily collected and used by the advertising industry

This is just one (and in my opinion, the most benign) facet of surveillance capitalism. You also have to consider these companies like Taser[1] and Amazon[2] that sell facial recognition software to the police. It's not fair to say surveillance capitalism is primarily/mainly/only an ad-tech problem. That type of talk can actually be quite deceiving because the iceberg (surveillance capitalism) is much bigger underneath the surface (when you go further than just ad-tech).

> If we were to simply ban the use of personal data beyond a few key items like age, gender and zip code for delivering ads there would be less reason to collect more data

But what is "personal data"? We're talking quintillions of bytes pinging and ponging on a daily basis. The idea that we could have surgical precision in determining what is/isn't personal data (or even a rough idea) is kinda laughable. In theory could we do it? Absolutely of course. But in reality? I'll let you have a good laugh just thinking about the powers that be working to "make the world a better place".

> Advertising companies will still earn ample profit from their ads with contextual targeting (e.g. showing ads related to search terms or related to the topic of a post or news item being displayed on the screen) and coarse grained targeting

Ad-tech companies don't want "ample" profit. They want _all_ the profit. That's capitalism. Your question/statement is a bit of "having your cake and eating it too". You think Zuckerberg (as an example) would be happy with say...10 billion dollars of net worth? No. He wants it all.

> This creates a more level playing field between large and small companies perhaps enabling increased competition.

As long as we have entry portals owned by monopolistic walled gardens (e.g., the Apple app store, Chrome web browser, Facebook (and its subsidiaries)) there is no such thing as a leveled playing field. You're asking team Google to play basketball "fairly", but team Google owns the officials, the ball, the hoop, the court, the stadium, and the concession stands - they can do whatever they want.

IMO

If we want to stop surveillance capitalism we have the most daunting task there ever was or could be - educating the public. If people knew "hey that's your data and you're not making any money off of it" they'd be much more inclined to give a damn. Only when we can find a way to make people realize "Hey Jon Doe, you could've made $300 last month off of your data, but $LARGE_COMPANY is keeping it all for themselves. Get what you deserve!", can start to make a dent in people's minds.

steps off soapbox

[1] https://www.wired.com/story/taser-maker-wont-use-facial-reco...

[2] https://www.theverge.com/2020/6/10/21287101/amazon-rekogniti...


Some good points. I'll try to address a couple.

> But what is "personal data"? This is where I think current legislation goes awry. By going with a whitelist (e.g. age, gender, zip code) as the only allowed data for targeting ads we an avoid the debate of what is personal data.

> Ad-tech companies don't want "ample" profit. They want _all_ the profit. Agree that the online ad companies won't want this legislation. But they'll have a hard time arguing that this will put them out of business. I think the general population likes these companies and wants them to continue to operate and be successful (as do I) but within reasonable bounds.


This is not a problem with technology at all. It has to do with people's morality first and foremost. With Christianity dying in the western world we've found ourselves without a common ground on which we could build on. Values is what connects people fundamentally. If you have a situation in which - and this is the case right now - an average person thinks that his fellow human beings are just biological automatons, that there's no God, that one lives for the sake of satisfying oneself first and often only -- no wonder that this situation enables pathological turds to rise to the top of society. What they do to achieve that is not meritocracy, but exploitation of other people. Psychopaths are the new leadership. Hence the pathology like Surveillance Capitalism emerging on every corner.

Pardon me all that talking about God. Try to thing about it in purely logical terms. Values is something you need to make decisions (as qualifiers). Having none is far worst than deriving some from let's say Christianity. Or whatever source that has been proven to work for a prolonged amount of time in that area. Can be even Zoroastrianism, but it must be common and well respected.

The world looks like it is today not because people are stupid, or because like some say human nature is dark. That's not the case. It's been at least 50 years now when Cultural Marxism has started to seriously deploying their "march thru institutions". People in the US tend to know very little about it (there's not even one covers-it-all book on the topic in English), yet that one phenomena is almost solely responsible for the shape of our reality today. Not even the progress in science, nor politics, or the people wanting to live in a different, better way. All of that has been generated by a bunch of (I must say very intelligent) psychopaths who have found out how to level up psychological warfare with their methods coming down to (mostly) execution of the tactics of Critical Theory by Marcuse. They have found out how to modify human culture in a way that the society is going to start dividing itself into two tiers: commoners, and their masters. Sounds like a conspiracy theory, right? Unfortunately it isn't. That whole process is extremely well documented and everyone having enough motivation has a chance to achieve a proper level of understanding regarding what's been going on.

The cornerstone of Cultural Marxism as a model of managing societies is parasitism in every possible form. The masters feasting on the vital energy of commoners. Looking at the problem of Surveillance Capitalism thru that scope it becomes clear that its rise is the most natural thing in the world. It's going to be much worse than just selling data. Complete slavery for commoners is the end game and that is going to be achieved thru technology. Look at China and study outcomes of what's been going on there. They're just a test sandbox for what's planned for the rest of commoners.

Want to change / get rid of Surveillance Capitalism? Change back human culture in a way that people can either AGAIN care about the consequences of their actions or at least empower and trust their leaders who are going to do the only thing that can be done here to definitely solve the problem - kill the parasite. There's only one way for this civilization to win - it's thru a model in which everyone is going to take full responsibility for himself and his actions. How good are we with that you can easily answer yourself...

PS: I'm from Europe, so it's easier for us here to connect the dots thru reading sources in: German, French, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian. Plus we can observe what the EU does on daily basis. Is it enough to mention that I've seen myself a portrait of Carl Marx on a corridor of the EU headquarters? It should be.

Whether you believe me or not is up to you. But one thing is sure even for a common Joe. There's something not OK with the world as it is today. I encourage you to find out for yourself.


Here we go again. It took less than 5 minutes for the above post to be down-voted by a progressive guerilla of HN. Some people simply can't stand facts...

This only confirms that offering anything of meaningful value to people here (with some exceptions) is exactly casting pearls before swine. Please, enjoy doing more of that and surely you're going to have high quality content.




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