Google's motto is "don't be evil" - but with so much power over our lives, can we trust it and other tech companies to be? Photo: Getty Images
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How to stop the tech giants turning us into techo-serfs

We need to learn to live with the big companies which dominate the internet - but right now our only policy responses are state control or free market monopoly.

On 6 May 2010, more than half a million Facebook users voted in the UK election. We know this because they told us. Each of them pressed a button on their Facebook profile announcing they had exercised their electoral right. Their Facebook announcements almost certainly galvanised other people to vote and increased turnout. At least, we know that is what happened in the US election that November. Research on the US Facebook election experiment concluded that the "I voted" button motivated 60,000 voters to go to the polls in the US in 2010, and that in turn triggered 340,000 extra votes. Facebook’s intervention took it beyond a passive platform and towards having a more active civic role, but given the decline in voter turnout in the UK and US, few would argue that getting out the vote was not a civic good.

Facebook and other US digital media giants – Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon and others – have already become integral across our work and social lives. Half of the people in Britain who use the internet are active Facebook users. Google has an 88 per cent share of search in the UK, and 92 per cent in Europe – and even higher in mobile search. Government ministers and departments now rely on Twitter to communicate policy. Eight out of ten ebooks sold in the UK are sold by Amazon.

Many of us rely on these digital behemoths to deliver and store our correspondence, to report our news, to help us find information, to tell us how to get somewhere, to arrange our meetings, to produce and store our work. Nor is our reliance restricted to our social and working lives. Increasingly we are also using these services for democratic purposes. We start and join campaigns on Facebook. We demonstrate political support through Twitter: #jesuischarlie, #bringbackourgirls, #99percent, #icantbreathe. Google accounts for between a quarter and a half of Europeans' method of accessing news online.

One of the consequences of this is that these commercial corporations know an awful lot about us. Facebook is, according to recent academic research, more likely to know what you like than your mum or dad. Apple, on whose iOS platform half of UK smartphone users rely, knows who you call, where you go, and a good proportion of the news you see. As for Google’s Android, which now supports the majority of smartphones in the world, the "operating system has only one core function, which is to collect data about you".

This puts a lot of the power over British citizens in the hands of these US media giants. The power to provide or obscure information. The power to assemble and make accessible our digital identities. The power to enable us to connect and co-ordinate with one another. The power – in certain situations – to predict what we are going to do next. And the power to pass on – or sell – our private information, to retailers, media outlets, the security services, or to use for their own purposes. So powerful is the personal data held by these companies that David Cameron put gaining access to it at the forefront of his agenda when he went to see the US president in January.

Yet the UK is just one of many franchises as far as these global titans are concerned. Facebook’s 33 million British monthly users make up less than 3 per cent of worldwide Facebook users. This proportion will shrink further if Facebook’s ambition to connect some of the four billion unconnected people in the world via internet.org succeeds. The 18 million Britons who rely on Google’s Android make up less than 2 per cent of Android users worldwide.

Outside the UK, these US companies' political influence has been even more material and profound. Facebook did not cause the 2011 Egyptian revolution, but it was critical in its incubation and early co-ordination. Twitter did not find Osama bin Laden, but we knew the Americans had thanks to Twitter. Amazon did successfully (though only temporarily) shut down access to Wikileaks when it dropped it from its cloud.

Until the last couple of years most democratic countries have simply stood by and watched as these global behemoths have grown. We have been happy to be gifted their digital tools that make our lives more efficient, more connected and – digitally, at least - more transparent.

Only recently have democratic governments begun to get anxious. It is not surprising that they are worried. These companies dominate markets and in some areas monopolise them. Some of these services are arguably becoming utilities, deprived of whose benefits one becomes unable to participate fully in society.

Moreover, they have increased their penetration and their scope far beyond the private sphere. Microsoft has developed predictive policing software. Amazon Web Services runs the CIA’s data cloud. Google predicts the spread of flu. Facebook promotes voting in elections and helps find missing children. Yet they are almost all US companies, and often do not have their headquarters in the countries in which they operate. Most have located their European offices in tax-friendly Ireland or Luxembourg.

The UK government, and UK citizens, have very little influence over these tech giants, or how they behave. We trust they will be kind and do no evil, but have little leverage if they choose to do otherwise. As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote of Facebook and Google+, the two "share a Hobbesian approach to governance in which people agree to relinquish a certain amount of freedom to a benevolent sovereign who in turn provides security and other services".

The recent Intelligent Services Committee report on the murder of Lee Rigby lamented the UK government’s lack of power. "None of the US companies we contacted", the report says, "accept the UK’s jurisdiction on requests for Lawful Intercept (i.e. content) for intelligence investigations". These US companies included Facebook, Google, BlackBerry, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and Twitter. Given the increasing use of encryption, the report goes on: "[W]e consider this to be the single most important challenge that the [UK Security] Agencies face. It has very serious ramifications for the security of the UK".

Non-democratic states have already taken steps to neuter these digital giants. Some have sought to block or constrain them, while nurturing national – and more compliant – alternatives. China blocked Facebook in 2009 (though, after assiduous courting by Mark Zuckerberg, is considering letting it back in). Google operates in China, but its service is frequently disrupted, meaning its share languishes at less than 2 per cent. Russia has gone further, with its lower House passing legislation in 2014 that would require internet companies to store Russian citizens personal data within Russia. Combined with the RuNet website blacklist, the restrictions on blogs with a daily audience of more than 3,000, and the "law against retweets", this means the Russian government will have huge power over its citizens' digital behavior, and have full knowledge of its citizens' digital footprints.

Erich Honecker’s East German government could only dream of having this much information about and control over its citizens. No democratic state should want to go in this direction – or, if they do, then they would quickly lose any democratic credibility.

So how should the UK and other democratic societies respond? What are the alternatives to blithely accepting US digital dominance or reacting in an autocratic anti-democratic way? Have Europe’s responses to date been well-informed, forward-thinking, constructive and cognizant of civil liberties? Sadly not.

In November 2014 the EU Parliament proposed breaking up Google into separate parts – splitting search from maps, news, email and social. Even though this was a symbolic gesture it is not clear why the Parliament thought such a move would be constructive. The chief alternatives to Google in search, maps, "free" email and social are also all US tech giants.

Two months earlier George Osborne announced, with some fanfare, that “some technology companies go to extraordinary lengths to pay little or no tax here … My message to those companies is clear: we will put a stop to it”. Yet, as numerous commentators subsequently concluded, the new tax arrangements are unlikely to have much impact beyond sending a political message to Google and its peers.

The November 2014 UK government report into the killing of Lee Rigby proposed, amongst other things, that Facebook and others keep their users under surveillance and pass on information to the UK government. Not only is this technologically impractical (there are 4.75 billion pieces of content shared a day on Facebook), but creates a dangerous precedent. This would essentially mean Facebook acting as a sort of private sector GCHQ, scouring people’s profiles and correspondence for any evidence of potential terrorism or criminality (and note the ambiguity "potential").

Perhaps the most regressive proposal of all was David Cameron’s promise, in January 2015, that, should the Conservatives be re-elected, he would pass laws to ensure that there were no ‘safe spaces’ online where people could communicate without the government being able to gain access.[xxv] Not only would this be technically impossible, to head in this direction would take the UK on a path pursued by authoritarian statist countries like Russia and China.

Cameron’s proposal, and others across Europe, indicate a wider policy vacuum. There is a digital policy black hole regarding how to deal with these companies into which regressive, reactive policies are being proposed without much thought for their practical application or their negative implications. As yet there are almost no proposed democratic alternatives. We have no separate, plausible, social-democratic option as distinct from the US free market individualist model or authoritarian statism.

This is because there has, to date, been so little substantive policy thinking about how to respond to these digital giants in a way that both acknowledges and welcomes the significant benefits they bring, but also enables us – over time – to create an environment in which we no longer rely on them so much.

If we want greater competition in the search market, why have we not discussed how to make the web easier to navigate (for example through more consistent metadata)? If we are concerned about tech giants hoarding personal data, why not consider Evgeny Morozov’s suggestion that such data "stripped of privacy-compromising identifiers… be pooled into a common resource"? If Twitter – which has always struggled to make a profit – closed down tomorrow, would we simply do without it, or wait for the market to come up with an alternative? Should we consider whether the BBC could build a public service alternative – building in proper safeguards for independence and privacy protection? If we are genuinely concerned about misuse of our private data by these US firms, should we not explore the "information fiduciary" concept suggested by Jack Balkin and others?

Our failure to explore alternatives may be due to our inability to foresee the dangers. The usefulness and convenience of these digital tools makes us blind to the potential economic, social and political risks. Until these dangers become clearer then there will be little political will to take action.

Meanwhile, our reliance on these digital leviathans continues to grow. Within the last year both Facebook and Google have taken significant steps into the world of work (see Facebook @work and Google MyBusiness) and expanded into new markets (such as through Facebook’s internet.org). If, at some point in the near future, there is another terrorist attack in the UK, the government will again place some blame on these US corporations and try to respond. Deprived of constructive, intellectually robust responses it is highly likely they will react in a way that harms not just the companies themselves, but all of us who have come to rely on them for our work, our social life and – increasingly – our civic participation.

On 7 May, many of us may click on a new Facebook "I voted" button. This will encourage more of us to vote. Facebook will have performed a civic good. But, as Jonathan Zittrain pointed out with respect to the 2010 election experiment, there is nothing to stop Facebook deliberately prompting only certain voters and thereby skewing the result. How would we ever know? Even if we did know, or found out, there is nothing we could do about it. As these tech giants bring us unprecedented tools for civic participation, we have a responsibility to think more carefully about how to ensure they "don’t be evil".

Martin Moore is director of the Media Standards Trust, a Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.