How Privacy Advocates Are Battling Big Tech

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" by Shoshana Zuboff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the purpose and mission of privacy advocates? Why are they chiefly concerned with big tech companies?

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff explores the concept of “surveillance capitalism”—a term she created to describe the invasive and controlling data collection practices of tech giants. She warns of the potentially disastrous outcomes for our society if we don’t advocate for change in this area.

Keep reading to learn how Zuboff says privacy advocates are fighting back against surveillance capitalism.

Privacy Advocates Fight Back

Author Shoshana Zuboff argues that although Google and other companies have been overwhelmingly successful at avoiding and preventing any sort of regulations that would curb their surveillance capitalism practices, this hasn’t prevented privacy advocates and governments from trying to fight back.

For example, in 2011, 90 Spanish privacy advocates submitted claims demanding that Google give them the right to have their private information removed from its site. The claims included desires to stay hidden from abusive partners and forget old arrests. The “right to be forgotten” became a fundamental principle of EU law in 2014.

Then, in 2018, the EU adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which forces companies to modify their data activities according to certain regulations. For example, companies are prohibited from making personal information public by default.

In addition, privacy advocates, artists, and inventors have created ways to avoid the prying practices of surveillance capitalism. This includes signal-blocking phone cases to help protestors hide their location by eliminating all wireless communication.

(Shortform note: You, too, can work to combat the practices of surveillance capitalism thanks to an inventor who developed a way to make signal-blocking phone pouches at home. The design requires materials that can be purchased online, as well as some light sewing.)

Opposing Viewpoints: The EU and US’s Take on Surveillance Capitalism 

Zuboff cites two examples of laws that the European Union has used to fight back against surveillance capitalism. But what action has been taken in the United States, where core companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are based, and how does that impact the actions of the EU?

With regards to privacy advocates’ “right to be forgotten” principle, the US opposes the EU. From the US’s perspective, the right to be forgotten violates the First Amendment right to free speech because companies have a right to publish whatever information they want online, even if that information reveals undesirable truths about individuals. In addition, in 2018, the US Congress enacted the US CLOUD Act, overruling the GDPR before it could be enforced.

With the US at the heart of surveillance capitalism, is it possible for the EU and other countries to drive meaningful change without American support? Thus far, it seems unlikely. For example, as previously mentioned, the US CLOUD Act overrules the GDPR. That means that US-based companies can and must allow government access to all stored data, including data stored by EU servers. In other words, the GDPR is rendered useless in the US—a likely outcome for any legislation regarding foreign data.

What We Can Do to Stop Surveillance Capitalism

Despite these efforts, privacy advocates haven’t been able to drive change fundamental enough to end surveillance capitalism. Zuboff insists that to defeat it, society must undergo a series of mindset shifts:

  • First, we must slow down and become aware of what’s happening around us.
  • Second, we have to recognize surveillance capitalism as inherently anti-democratic.
  • Third, we need to reignite our anger and fight for our right to privacy and self-determination.
  • Fourth, we must accept that, as individuals, we’re powerless. To stop the progression of surveillance capitalism, we need collective social action.

Ultimately, Zuboff argues that, regardless of others’ past decisions, it’s each new generation’s responsibility to advocate for privacy rights.

What Can We Do to Stop Surveillance Capitalism?

Although Zuboff doesn’t offer any specific action steps individuals can take to stop the advance of surveillance capitalism, other writers offer tips on how to be a privacy advocate. Since Zuboff asserts that it’s every new generation’s responsibility to make things right, she would likely encourage everyone to take active steps like these:

To become more aware of what’s happening, intentionally research political action regarding big tech and surveillance capitalism. Keep close tabs on the members of Congress who represent you: Sign up for their newsletters, follow them on social media, and create Google News alerts for their names. Use to stay informed about current congressional legislation as it develops.

To help society recognize surveillance capitalism as anti-democratic and inspire ourselves (and others) to advocate for our right to privacy, find ways to spread Zuboff’s message. In Contagious, Jonah Berger explains that effectively spreading ideas is all about influencing others to spread them in everyday conversation. To do this, make your idea as visible as possible and engage your audience with an emotional story. For example, 2017’s #MeToo movement successfully spread awareness of sexual abuse and harassment by urging its audience to use a specific hashtag (increasing the movement’s visibility) and share their personal, emotionally-charged stories (engaging the audience).

To aid collective social action, join an existing activist group. There are plenty of activist organizations currently fighting Big Tech for our right to privacy, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Privacy International. Seek a job opportunity or volunteer at one of these organizations—or just donate.
How Privacy Advocates Are Battling Big Tech

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  • The methods big tech companies are using to watch you
  • How surveillance capitalism can thrive despite opposition
  • How to prevent it from destroying our freedom and democracy

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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