The Guardian view on digital giants: they farm us for the data
We are neither the customers nor even the product of companies like Google, but we turn our lives into the knowledge that they sell
An astonishing project is under way to build a “digital time machine” that will show us in fine detail the lives of ordinary Venetians across a thousand years of history. It is made possible by the persistence of the republic’s bureaucracy, which, when Napoleon extinguished the Republic of Venice in 1797, left behind 80km of shelving full of records of births, deaths, trades, building, land ownership, private letters, ambassadors’ reports and even medical information. All this is now to be digitised, cross-referenced, and analysed, and all its secrets laid bare to provide a picture in unprecedented richness and detail of the lives of individuals and the development of society over many centuries. Obviously, this is wonderful for historians and indeed anybody with an imagination alive today. One wonders, though, what the Venetians would have made of it, had they known their lives and letters would be so carefully anatomised after their deaths.
Far more is known about us now, though, and in real time. The data in the Venetian archives was unmatched in medieval and even early modern Europe, but it is only legend and scraps of hearsay compared to the knowledge of us accumulated by the giants of the digital economy – Google, Facebook, and Amazon – who all in various ways use the data harvested from their users to make billions of dollars, from advertising or from direct selling, or from some combination of both. Their knowledge of our intimate lives doesn’t wait two centuries or more until we’re dead. They get it live, in real time. Sometimes they know our minds before we know them ourselves. It’s a situation quite unprecedented in history.
The European commission may be about to levy the biggest fine in its history on Google for anti-competitive behaviour – potentially more than €1bn. This case, five years in the making, is the latest, and perhaps the largest, battle in the struggle to establish democratic control over the giants of the digital economy. In the US, the government has been captured by the corporations, and in China universal surveillance is openly converted to a means of government control. Only the EU attempts to balance these powers to the benefit of the ordinary citizen.
The power and ambition of these companies is astonishing – Amazon has just announced the purchase of the upmarket grocery chain Whole Foods for $13.5bn, but two years ago Facebook paid even more than that to acquire the WhatsApp messaging service, which doesn’t have any physical product at all. What WhatsApp offered Facebook was an intricate and finely detailed tracery of its users’ friendships and social lives. Facebook promised the European commission then that it would not link phone numbers to Facebook identities, but it broke the promise almost as soon as the deal went through. Even without knowing what was in the messages, the knowledge of who sent them and to whom was enormously revealing and still could be. What political journalist, what party whip, would not want to know the makeup of the WhatsApp groups in which Theresa May’s enemies are currently plotting? It may be that the value to Amazon of Whole Foods is not so much the 460 shops it owns, or the distribution network, but the records of which customers have purchased what.
Competition law appears to be the only way to address these imbalances of power. But it is clumsy. For one thing, it is very slow compared to the pace of change within the digital economy. By the time a problem has been addressed and remedied it may have vanished in the marketplace, to be replaced by new abuses of power. But there is a deeper conceptual problem, too. Competition law as presently interpreted deals with financial disadvantage to consumers and this is not obvious when the users of these services don’t pay for them. The users of their services are not their customers. That would be the people who buy advertising from them – and Facebook and Google operate a virtual duopoly in digital advertising to the detriment of all other media and entertainment companies.
The product they’re selling is data, and we, the users, convert our lives to data for the benefit of the digital giants. Just as some ants farm aphids for the honeydew that oozes from them when they feed, so Google farms us for the data that our digital lives exude. Ants keep predatory insects away from where their aphids feed; Gmail keeps the spammers out of our inboxes. It doesn’t feel like a human or democratic relationship, even if both sides benefit.
• This article was amended on 19 June 2017 to remove a reference to Apple which was not apt.