Trust us: you need our protection against ourselves
Mar 4, 2023
There is no easy pick when addressing privacy, but corporations are the last stakeholder to be given power.
When Elon Musk walked into Twitter's HQ in San Francisco, sink in hand, it became clear that the mercurial entrepreneur was about to usher in a new era for the company. After firing half of the employees, all hell broke loose in the digital realm, with two out of two observers predicting a quick end for Twitter as users would flock to other platforms (like Mastodon). But the "massive outages" haven't happened, users are still there, Mastodon is not the new Twitter, and it doesn't seem that the Musk-a-Geddon will descend into hell. On the contrary: Musk actually showed the tech titans that users don't really have lots of alternatives, and they can whine a lot, but in the end, they care too much for their digital personas to let everything go.
If nothing else, it became clear to those who were still blind that the big tech "power to the people" game survives very little once they are thrown into the open from their PR departments. But the whole point is that there is so much else. Musk's takeover may have marked the start of a new era where users' opinions can really be ignored. We are all tied to their gardens by our guts, and there is simply no leverage for users to fight back. Social media has been a public essential service for ages, and regulation recognising that is not here yet because everyone involved, from politicians to corporations, has just too much to lose and very little to gain. Society, in the end, is set to be the greatest loser of all - as always.
But the point is not only about why Elon Musk is going to win his bet. The thing is that his borderline irrational boldness showed that users can't escape their trendy digital dominions, and might even pay for that. This Washington Post article (and many others do the same) points out that Facebook is starting to test Twitter-inspired paid verifications in two markets to see what happens. This would be awful in itself already because users lost control of their identities due to social media platforms' lack of regulation, but it goes way beyond because the major platforms have all the leverage to finish the match whenever necessary.
This is a dystopian scenario, but even then, it’s not miles away from reality. Policymakers outside the European Union fear regulation, and social media being a reverberation box, anything threatening the establishment would have to go through hell to achieve anything. One can argue that that’s exactly what Elon Musk did, and that is correct, but Musk owns Twitter, he can throw it away if he wants, while politicians are bound to obey anything that ensures them the next election.
Regulation in public utility markets is not an accessory; it is crucial because it prevents societies to be held hostage of one or few service providers with no competition. What we are about to see next in the game is how hard not only digital platforms, but all massive digital service providers, can work to ensure great results in the next quarter. Users do not have options to migrate to competitors in the same way that media companies cannot compete with ad exchanges like Google and Facebook. That is probably what Peter Thiel meant when he said that "competition is for losers." The current situation is one where the only companies able to protect users' civil rights, such as privacy and identity ownership, among others, are the companies themselves. A future where you have to pay Facebook not to sell you like a commodity to advertisers is not a Kafkaesque tale, but a reality.
Safeguards for privacy and other rights exist in most democracies, but digital ecosystems are so complex and opaque that attacks on such rights would not require a major corporation to come forward and ask for money in exchange for privacy. To some extent, such violations are already in place, but are tolerated due to a combination of the competence of legal departments, lack of political will to uphold constitutional rights, and an absolute lack of resources for users to coordinate their responses.
Is this going to get hairy? Yes, it is. The incoming economic recession that will make investors nervous will demand that CEOs find new revenue sources, and charging users will always sound attractive. Equally important, political polarisation will tend to paralyse lawmakers from doing their job, because much more urgent issues are certain to arise in, for example, the next presidential race in the US. Several reputable observers agree that there are similarities between the snapshot of the world today and the ones preceding historical tragedies, reminding us that we are incredibly prone to behaving irrationally in such times. In such a scenario, imagining Meta asking you for money to protect you from themselves is not even as irrational as it should be.