The online campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a prelude to a dark future where data will become weaponized by hostile states, unless regulators and consumers push back, says the author of a new book on how to fix the crisis of trust in Silicon Valley.
“There will be major international crises and probably wars built around data,” Andrew Keen says. “There will be a hot data war at some point in the future.”
An internet entrepreneur turned cultural commentator, Mr. Keen was considered a heretic in 2007 when he wrote The Cult of the Amateur, which skewered the unbridled optimism fuelling the early days of Web 2.0 – the shift from static websites to platforms focused on user-generated content.
Far from democratizing the web, Mr. Keen warned a decade ago that sites such as Facebook and YouTube were undermining traditional media outlets, cannibalizing revenues from professional content creators, and allowing anonymous trolls to post content unconstrained by professional standards that could manipulate public opinion and “reinvent” the truth.
Now as tech giants including Facebook, Twitter and PayPal confront revelations contained in U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment that they were the platforms of choice for Russian agents using stolen data to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, those early warnings have become the consensus opinion.
Today there is so much agreement about the harmful effects of technology that Mr. Keen says he’s wants to stop writing about what’s wrong with the internet and start focusing on how to fix it.
The heart of the issue, he argues in his latest book How to Fix the Future, lies in today’s big data economy, where tech companies give away their products for free in exchange for consumer information that advertisers use to create highly targeted messages. It’s a business model built on mass surveillance, with personal data becoming the economy’s most valuable commodity.
And as that data become ever-more important to state-to-state relations, Mr. Keen says we’re only one major hacking event away from a digital world war.
“We still haven’t had an Exxon Valdez or a Chernobyl on data,” he said in an interview days before a U.S. federal grand jury indicted three Russian companies and 13 of their online operatives for a wide-ranging and well-funded online campaign to sow political discord during the 2016 election in support of Donald Trump. “I think there will be some major hacking event in the not-too-distant future which may involve a foreign power that will wake people up to this.”
Yet such a dystopian a future is far from inevitable, he says. The internet’s early optimism, the belief that technology would save the world, was misguided. But so is today’s digital determinism, which says that humans are powerless against algorithms, smart machines and cyberwarfare campaigns of hostile foreign governments.
To fix the future, Mr. Keen argues, we should look to the past. The social and economic upheaval caused by Industrial Revolution was tamed through a combination of labour strikes, government regulations that improved working conditions, the advent of a social safety net and the adoption of public schools. Mr. Keen believes the most damaging effects of today’s digital revolution can be similarly managed through a combination of regulation, innovation, consumer and worker demands and education.
History lessons are particularly crucial for Silicon Valley’s forward-looking tech titans. Mr. Keen points to the U.S. automotive industry, whose global dominance was undermined by safety and reliability issues until it eventually lost ground to innovative companies in Europe and Asia.
“It’s very important for Silicon Valley to wake up and recognize that there’s no guarantee that they’ll be dominant in 10 or 20 years,” he said.
In Mr. Keen’s vision of the war for the future, the villains are China and Russia, which are using online platforms to create surveillance states that undermine trust between citizens and their government.
The heroes are countries such as Estonia, which is creating a digital ID system for its citizens – one that alerts them each time a government agency accesses their data. The country also launched an “e-residency” program that gives foreign entrepreneurs access to the country’s financial institutions. In the Estonian model, he says, building online trust means replacing anonymity and privacy with a system of open and transparent state surveillance.
Regulation will become increasingly important to reining in big tech, he says. But the U.S., with its chaotic political system and laws that shield social media companies from liability for content posted on their platforms, is ill-equipped to lead the push for reform.
Canadian regulators have likewise taken a largely hands-off approach to social media companies, though earlier this month Bank of Canada deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins called for tougher regulation of tech firms, given their growing power and control over vast troves of personal data.
“Access to and control of user data could make some firms virtually unassailable,” she said.
Facebook also launched a “Canadian Election Integrity” project last year to head off concerns over how its platform could be used to undermine the 2019 Canadian federal election.
But Mr. Keen expects European regulators to carry the fight, particularly European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager. “She’s the only one willing to take on Apple and force them to pay their taxes,” he says. “She’s the only one who is really looking critically [at] Google.”
Just as the U.S. government’s antitrust case against Microsoft in the 1990s loosened the company’s stranglehold on desktop computing and paved the way for startups such as Google and Facebook, Mr. Keen believes the multibillion-dollar fines Ms. Vestager has slapped on Silicon Valley giants are intended to foster innovation by preventing the big tech companies from using their global dominance to squash smaller competitors.
The most significant reforms will come this May, when the European Union launches the General Data Protection Regulation. The aggressive internet-privacy reforms will, among other things, give users the “right to be forgotten” by allowing consumers to delete the personal data that private companies hold about them.
While critics, including Mr. Keen, say the rules unintentionally favour companies large enough to afford to comply, he still sees the regulations as a good start. “The important thing is that they are beginning to pass some laws around data and the protection of consumer data,” he said.
Mr. Keen won’t predict how long it will be before Silicon Valley is forced to make meaningful changes to adapt to consumer and government pressure. But just as technology changes quickly, so can society’s attitude toward it. Or as one venture capitalist in the book describes the process of social and economic disruption: “it’s nothing, nothing, nothing – and then something dramatic.”
The Globe and Mail, February 20, 2018