Apple clearly has power, but it isn’t accountable

By John Naughton

The only body that has, to date, been able to exert real control over the data-tracking industry is a giant private company which itself is subject to serious concerns about its monopolistic behaviour. Where is democracy in all this?

A few weeks ago, Apple dropped its long-promised bombshell on the data-tracking industry.

The latest version (14.5) of iOS — the operating system of the iPhone — included a provision that required app users explicitly to confirm that they wished to be tracked across the Internet in their online activities.

At the heart of the switch is a code known as “the identity for advertisers” or IDFA. It turns out that every iPhone comes with one of these identifiers, the object of which is to provide participants in the hidden real-time bidding system with aggregate data about the user’s interests.

For years, iPhone users had had the option to switch it off by digging into the privacy settings of their devices; but, because they’re human, very few had bothered to do that.

From 14.5 onwards, however, they couldn’t avoid making a decision, and you didn’t have to be a Nobel laureate to guess that most iPhone users would opt out.

Which explains why those who profit from the data-tracking racket had for months been terminally anxious about Apple’s perfidy.

Some of the defensive PR mounted on their behalf — for example Facebook’s weeping about the impact on small, defenceless businesses — defied parody.

“We have evidence of its [real-time bidding] illegitimacy, and a powerful law on the statute book which in principle could bring it under control — but which we appear unable to enforce.”

Other counter-offensives included attacks on Apple’s monopolistic control over its Apps store, plus charges of rank hypocrisy – that changes in version 14.5 were not motivated by Apple’s concerns for users’ privacy but by its own plans to enter the advertising business. And so on.

It’ll be a while until we know for sure whether the apocalyptic fears of the data-trackers were accurate.

It takes time for most iPhone users to install operating system updates, and so these are still relatively early days. But the first figures are promising. One data-analytics company, for example, has found that in the early weeks the daily opt-out rate for American users has been around 94 percent.

This is much higher than surveys conducted in the run-up to the change had suggested — one had estimated an opt-out rate closer to 60 per cent.

If the opt-out rate is as high as we’ve seen so far, then it’s bad news for the data-tracking racket and good news for humanity. And if you think that description of what the Financial Times estimates to be a $350B industry is unduly harsh, then a glance at a dictionary may be helpful.

Merriam-Webster, for example, defines ‘racket’ as “a fraudulent scheme, enterprise, or activity” or “a usually illegitimate enterprise made workable by bribery or intimidation”.

It’s not clear whether the computerised, high-speed auction system in which online ads are traded benefits from ‘bribery or intimidation’, but it is certainly illegal — and currently unregulated.

That is the conclusion of a remarkable recent investigation by two legal scholars, Michael Veale and Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, who set out to examine whether this ‘real-time bidding’ (RTB) system conforms to European data-protection law.

“The irony in this particular case is that there’s no need for such an overhaul: Europe already has the law in place.”

They asked whether RTB complies with three rules of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) — the requirement for a legal basis, transparency, and security. They showed that for each of the requirements, most RTB practices do not comply. “Indeed”, they wrote, “it seems close to impossible to make RTB comply”. So, they concluded, it needs to be regulated.

It does.

Often the problem with tech regulation is that our legal systems need to be overhauled to deal with digital technology. But the irony in this particular case is that there’s no need for such an overhaul: Europe already has the law in place.

It’s the GDPR, which is part of the legal code of every EU country and has provision for swingeing punishments of infringers. The problem is it’s not being effectively enforced.

Why not? The answer is that the EU delegates regulatory power to the relevant institutions — in this case Data Protection Authorities — of its member states. And these local outfits are overwhelmed by the scale of the task – and are lamentably under-resourced for it.

Half of Europe’s DPAs have only five technical experts or fewer. And the Irish Data Protection Authority, on whose patch most of the tech giants have their European HQs, has the heaviest enforcement workload in Europe and is clearly swamped.

So here’s where we are: an illegal online system has been running wild for years, generating billions of profits for its participants.

We have evidence of its illegitimacy, and a powerful law on the statute book which in principle could bring it under control — but which we appear unable to enforce.

And the only body that has, to date, been able to exert real control over the aforementioned racket is… a giant private company which itself is subject to serious concerns about its monopolistic behaviour. And the question for today: where is democracy in all this? You only have to ask to know the answer.


A version of this post appeared in The Observer on 23 May, 2021.

In Review: The Cloud and the Ground

By Julia Rone

In this literature review, Julia Rone outlines the key trends and logics behind the boom in data centre construction across the globe.

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By th’ mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

The cloud – this fundamental building block of digital capitalism – has been so far defined mainly by the PR of big tech companies.

The very metaphor of the “cloud” presupposes an ethereal, supposedly immaterial collection of bits gliding in the sky, safely removed from the corrupt organic and inorganic matter that surrounds us. This, of course, can’t be further from the truth.

But even when they acknowledge the materiality of the “cloud” and the way it is grounded in a very physical infrastructure of cables, data centres, etc., tech giants still present it in a neat and glamorous way. Data centres, for example, provide carefully curated tours and are presented as sites of harmoniously humming servers, surrounded by wild forests and sea. Some data centres even boast with saunas.  

Instead of accepting blindly the PR of tech companies and seeing “the cloud” as whatever they present it (similarly to the way Polonius accepts Hamlet’s interpretations of the cloud), we should be attuned to the multiplicity of existing perspectives on “the cloud”, coming from researchers, rural and urban communities, and environmentalists, among others.

In this lit review, I outline the key trends and logics behind the boom in data centre construction across the globe. I base the discussion on several papers from two special issues. The first one is The Nature of Data Centres, edited by Mél Hogan and Asta Vonderau for Culture Machine. The second: Location and Dislocation: Global Geographies of Digital Data, edited by Alix Johnson and Mél Hogan for Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. I really recommend reading both issues – the contributions read like short stories and go straight to the core of the most pressing political economy problems of our times.

Credit: Zbynek Burival for Unsplash

The “nature” of data centres

Data centres as key units of the cloud are very material: noisy, hot, giant storage boxes containing thousands of servers, they occupy factories from the past or spring up on farm land all over the globe. Data centres are grounded in particular locations and depend on a number of “natural” factors for their work, including temperature, humidity, or air pollution. In order for data centres to function, they not only use up electricity (produced by burning coal or using wind energy, for example). They also employ technologies to circulate air and water to cool down and emit heat as a waste product.

But data centres are not only assemblages of technology and nature. Their very appearance, endurance and disappearance is defined by complex institutional and non-institutional social relations: regions and countries compete with each other to cut taxes for tech corporations that promise to bring jobs and development. Some states (e.g. Scandinavian states) are preferred over others because of their stable institutions and political “climate”.

No blank slate

To illustrate, the fact that data centres are built in the Sweden’s Norrbotten region has to do a lot with the “nature” of the region conceptualized reductively by tech companies as cheap energy, cheap water, cheap land and green imagery (Levenda and Mahmoudi, 2019, 2). But it also has to do a lot with the fact that Norrbotten is filled with the “ruins of infrastructural promises” (Vonderau, 2019, 3) – “a scarcely populated and resource-rich region, historically inhabited by native Sami people, the region was for a long-time regarded as no-man’s land” (ibid). Not only is Norrbotten scarcely populated but it also has an “extremely stable and redundant electricity grid which was originally designed for […]‘old’ industries” (ibid, 7).

A similar logic of operation could be discerned in the establishment of a data centre in the Midway Technology Centre in Chicago, where the Schulze Bakery was repurposed as a data centre (Pickren, 2017) Pickren was told in an interview with a developer working on the Schulze redevelopment project that “because the surrounding area had been deindustrialized, and because a large public housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes had closed down in recent decades, the nearby power substations actually had plenty of idle capacity to meet the new data centre needs” (Pickren, 2017). As Pickern observes, “there is no blank slate upon which the world of data simply emerges”(ibid.) There are multiple “continuities between an (always temporary) industrial period and the (similarly temporary) ascendancy of digital capitalism” (ibid).

Extraction and the third wave of urbanization

What the examples of Norrbotten in Sweden and the redevelopment of Chicago by the data industry show is that despite a carefully constructed PR around “being close to nature” and “being green”, decisions on data centre construction actually depend on availability of electricity for which depopulation is only a plus. Instead of “untouched” regions, what companies often go for are rather abandoned or scarcely populated regions with infrastructure left behind. Data centres use resources – industrial capacity or Green energy – that are already there, left from previous booms and busts of capitalism or from conscious state investment that is now used to the benefit of private companies.

“Urban interactions are increasingly mediated by tech and leave a digital trace – from paying your Uber to ordering a latte, from booking a restaurant to finding a date for the night.”

Both urban and rural communities are in fact all embedded within a common process of a “third wave of urbanization” that goes hand in hand with an increase in the commodification and extraction of both data and “natural” resources (Levenda and Mahmoudi, 2019). What this means is that urban interactions are increasingly mediated by tech and leave a digital trace – from paying your Uber to ordering a latte, from booking a restaurant to finding a date for the night.

Credit: Priscilla Du Preez for Unsplash

This urban data is then stored and analysed in predominantly rural settings: “[T]he restructuring of Seattle leads to agglomerations in urban data production, which rely on rural data storage and analysis” (ibid, 9). Put simply, “[J]ust as Facebook and Google use rural Oregon for their ‘natural’ resources, they use cities and agglomerations of ‘users’ to extract data”.

Ultimately, data centres manifest themselves as assemblages for the extraction of value from both people and nature.

As if in a perverse rendition of Captain Planet, all elements – water, air, earth, human beings and technology – unite forces so that data centres can function and you can upload a cat photo on Facebook. In this real life data-centre version of Captain Planet, however, all elements are used up, extracted, exhausted. Water is polluted.

People live with the humming noise of thousands of servers.

Taxes are not collected and therefore not invested in communities that are already deprived.

What is more, data centres often arrive in rural regions with the promise to create jobs and drive development. But as numerous authors have shown, actual jobs created by data centres are less than what was originally promised, with most jobs being precarious subcontracting (Mayer, 2019). As Pickren notes, “If the data centre is the ‘factory of the 21st century,’ whither the working class?”

Abstraction

Data centres do create jobs but predominantly in urban areas. “[W]here jobs are created, where they are destroyed and who is affected are socially and geographically uneven” (Pickern, 2017). Where value is extracted from and where value is allocated rarely coincide.

And if from a birds view perspective, what matters is the total number of jobs created, what matters in Sweden’s Norrbotten or The Netherlands’ Groningen, where data centres are built, is how many jobs are created there and furthermore, what types of jobs (Mayer, 2019). In the same way, while from an abstract point of view tech companies such as Microsoft might be “carbon neutral”, this does not change their questionable practices and dependence on coal in particular places.

The Introduction to the “Location and Dislocation” Special Issue quotes a classic formulation by Yi-Fu Tuan according to whom “place is space made meaningful”(Johnson and Hogan, 2017, 4).

“Whenever we hear big tech’s grandiose pledges of carbon neutrality and reducing carbon emissions, we need to understand that these companies are not simply “green-washing” but are also approaching the problem of global warming “in the abstract””.

One of the key issues with tech companies building data centres is the way they privilege space over place – an abstract logic of calculation and global flows over the very particular local relations of belonging and accountability.

In a great piece on “fungible forms of mediation in the cloud”, Pasek explores how the practice of big tech companies to buy renewable energy certificates does more harm than good, since it allows “data centre companies to symbolically negate their local impacts in coal-powered regions on papers, while still materially driving up local grid demand and thereby incentivizing the maintenance or expansion of fossil energy generation” (ibid, 7).

The impact for local communities can be disastrous: “In communities located near power plants, disproportionately black, brown and low-income, this has direct consequences for public health, including greater rates of asthma and infant mortality” (ibid).

So whenever we hear big tech’s grandiose pledges of carbon neutrality and reducing carbon emissions, we need to understand that these companies are not simply “green-washing” but are also approaching the problem of global warming “in the abstract”, at the global level, paying little attention to their effect in any particular locality.

As Pasek notes, this logic of abstraction subordinates the “urgencies of place” to the “logics of circulation”.

Unsurprisingly, it is precisely the places that have already lost the most from previous industrial transformations that are the ones who suffer most during the current digital transformations.

Invisibility and Hypervisibility

What makes possible the extraction practices of tech companies is a mix between how little we know about them and how much we believe in their promise of doing good (or well, not doing evil at least).

In her fascinating essay “The Second Coming: Google and Internet infrastructure”, Mayer (2019) explores the rumours around a new Google data centre in Groningen. Mayer explores how Google’s reputation as a leading company combined with a the total lack of concrete information about the new data centre create a mystical aura around the whole enterprise: “Google’s curation of aura harkens back to the early eras of Western sacred art, during which priests gave sacred objects their magical value by keeping them ‘invisible to the spectator’” (Mayer, 2019, 4).

Mayer contrasts a sleek Google PR video (with a lone windmill and blond girls looking at computer screens) with the reality brought about by a centre that offered only a few temporary subcontracting jobs. The narrative of regional growth presented by Google unfortunately turned out to be PR rather than a coherent development strategy.

Impermanence

Furthermore, in a fascinating essay on data centres as “impertinent infrastructures”, Velkova (2019) explores the temporality and impermanence of data centres that can be moved or abandoned easily. 

How could such impertinent structures provide regional development?

What is more, even if data centres do not move, they do reorganize global territories and connectivity speeds through the threat of moving: “data center companies are constantly reevaluating the economic profitability of  particular locations in synchrony with server replacement cycles and new legislative frameworks that come into force.

Data centres are above all impermanent – they can come and go. Rather than being responsible to a particular locality, data centres are part of what Pasek called a “logic of global circulation”

Should tax regulations, electricity prices, legislation or geopolitical dynamics shift, even a hyper-sized data center like Google’s in Finland or Facebook’s in Sweden could make a corresponding move to a place with more economically favourable conditions within three years” (Velkova, 2019, 5).

So data centres are on the one hand, hypervisible through corporate PR. On the other hand, they are invisible for local communities that are left guessing about construction permits, the conditions of data centres arrival, their impact on the environment and the economy.

But ultimately, and this is the crucial part, data centres are above all impermanent – they can come and go. Rather than being responsible to a particular locality, data centres are part of what Pasek called a “logic of global circulation”.

Holding each node accountable

Big tech’s logics of extraction, abstraction, invisibility, hypervisibility and impermanence are driving the current third wave of urbanization and unequal development under digital capitalism.

But it is possible to imagine another politics that would “hold each node accountable to the communities in which they are located” (Pasek, 9).

The papers from the two special issues I review here provide an exhaustive and inspiring overview of the “nature” and imaginaries of data centres.

Yet, with few exceptions (such as the work of Asta Vonderau), we know little about the politics of resistance to data centres and the local social movements that are appearing and demanding more democratic participation in decision making.

Would it be possible for us – citizens – to define what the cloud should look like? Not sure. But this is a crucial element of any project for democratizing digital sovereignty. And this is what I work on now.

In Review: Bellingcat and the unstoppable Mr Higgins

By John Naughton

Review of We are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, by Eliot Higgins, Bloomsbury, 255pp

On the face of it, this book tells an implausible story. It’s about how an ordinary guy – a bored administrator in Leicester, to be precise – becomes a skilled Internet sleuth solving puzzles and crimes which appear to defeat some of the world’s intelligence agencies. And yet it’s true. Eliot Higgins was indeed a bored administrator, out of a job and looking after his young daughter in 2011 while his wife went out to work. He was an avid watcher of YouTube videos, especially of those emanating from the Syrian civil war, and one day had an epiphany: “If you searched online you could find facts that neither the press nor the experts knew.”

Higgins realised that one reason why mainstream media were ignoring the torrent of material from the war zone that was being uploaded to YouTube and other social media channels was that these outlets were unable to verify or corroborate it. So he started a blog — the Brown Moses blog — and discovered that a smattering of other people had had a similar realisation, which was the seed crystal for the emergence of an online community that converged around news events that had left clues on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

This community of sleuths now sails under the flag of Bellingcat, a name taken from the children’s story about the ingenious mice who twig that the key to obtaining early warning of a cat’s approach is to put a bell round its neck. This has led to careless journalists calling members of the community “Bellingcats” — which leads them indignantly to point out that they are the mice, not the predators!

The engaging name belies a formidable little operation which has had a series of impressive scoops. One of the earliest involved confirming Russian involvement in the downing of MH17, the Malaysia Airlines aircraft brought down by a missile when flying over Ukraine. Other impressive scoops included identification of the Russian FSB agents responsible for the Skripal poisonings and finding the FSB operative who tried to assassinate Alexai Navalny, the Russian democratic campaigner and Putin opponent who is now imprisoned — and, reportedly, seriously ill — in a Russian gaol.

‘We are Bellingcat’ is a low-key account of how this remarkable outfit evolved and of the role that Mr Higgins played in its development. The deadpan style reflects the author’s desire to project himself as an ordinary Joe who stumbled on something significant and worked at it in collaboration with others. This level of understatement is admirable but not entirely persuasive for the simple reason that Higgins is no ordinary Joe. After all, one doesn’t make the transition from a bored, low-level administrator to become a Research Fellow at U.C. Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and a member of the International Criminal Court’s Technology Advisory Board without having some exceptional qualities.

“One could say that the most seminal contribution Bellingcat has made so far is to explore and disseminate the tools needed to convert user-generated content into more credible information — and maybe, sometimes, into the first draft of history.”

One of the most striking things about Bellingcat’s success is that — at least up to this stage — its investigative methodology is (to use a cliché) not rocket science. It’s a combination of determination, stamina, cooperation, Internet-saviness, geolocation (where did something happen?), chronolocation (when did it happen?) and an inexhaustible appetite for social-media-trawling. There is, in other words, a Bellingcat methodology — and any journalist can learn it, provided his or her employer is prepared to provide the time and opportunity to do so. In response, Bellingcat has been doing ‘boot camps’ for journalists — first in Germany, Britain and France and — hopefully — in the US. And the good news is that some mainstream news outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC, have been setting up journalistic units working in similar ways.

In the heady days of the so-called ‘Arab spring’ there was a lot of excited hype about the way the smartphone had launched a new age of ‘Citizen Journalism’. This was a kind of category error which confused user-generated content badged as ‘witnessing’ with the scepticism, corroboration, verification, etc. that professional journalism requires. So in that sense one could say that the most seminal contribution Bellingcat has made so far is to explore and disseminate the tools needed to convert user-generated content into more credible information — and maybe, sometimes, into the first draft of history.

Mr Higgins makes continuous use of the phrase “open source” to describe information that he and his colleagues find online, when what he really means is that the information — because it is available online — is in the public domain. It is not ‘open source’ in the sense that the term is used in the computer industry, but I guess making that distinction is now a lost cause because mainstream media have re-versioned the phrase.

The great irony of the Bellingcat story is that the business model that finances the ‘free’ services (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram et al) that are polluting the public sphere and undermining democracy is also what provides Mr Higgins and his colleagues with the raw material from which their methodology extracts so many scoops and revelations. Mr Higgins doesn’t have much time for those of us who are hyper-critical of the tech industry. He sees it as a gift horse whose teeth should not be too carefully examined. And I suppose that, in his position, I might think the same.

Forthcoming in British Journalism Review, vol. 32, No 2, June 2021.

In Review: How do we avoid the ‘racket’ of sustainable development and green tech?

By Mallika Balakrishnan

Ahead of COP26, can the narrative be shifted away from what Camila Nobrega and Joana Varon describe as a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism? Mallika Balakrishnan explores the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy’s reading & discussion of Nobrega, Camila & Joana Varon. “Big tech goes green(washing): feminist lenses to unveil new tools in the master’s houses.” GISWatch: Technology, the environment, and a sustainable world. 2021.

On June 17, the Minderoo Centre will be hosting thinkers from academia, civil society, and industry for our workshop on Technology & the Environment.

In the lead up to COP26, we’re keen to spark discussion and amplify action at the nexus of technology and its impact on the environment.

One of the themes we’re hoping to explore more is the environmental cost of technological convenience. 

Frankly, critiques of convenience are often the place my brain starts to tune out: “convenience” frequently serves as shorthand for a framework of climate destruction via individual consumption choices.

Several, though not all, of these analyses are ableist and anti-poor, and they refuse to start from a commitment to decoloniality. 

Nevertheless, the environmental and social costs of convenience are staggering, and will be crucial to understand on the road to environmental justice.

I proposed reading Joana Varon and Camila Nobrega’s recently published article because I resonated strongly with their feminist, power-based analysis of technology and the environment, specifically around the role of big tech companies and intergovernmental meetings such as COP.

Their work articulates the dissonance between big tech’s stated commitments to climate justice and actual consolidation of power, in a way that helped me start to think about convenience at a level of analysis that doesn’t feel disingenuous. 

“Especially in high-level fora such as COP26, it might be difficult to shift the narrative away from what the authors call a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism.” “

Some themes and remarks that surfaced in our discussion: 

When it comes to the environment, Big Tech companies are eager to centre themselves in policy-setting debates.

This article highlighted how tech companies have already positioned themselves as having useful tools to help solve the climate crisis, sweeping under the rug the ways they are exacerbating environmental destruction. As brought up in our discussion, this feels reminiscent of tobacco companies’ roles in shaping narratives around the risk of lung cancer. Especially in high-level fora such as COP26, it might be difficult to shift the narrative away from what the authors call a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism.” 

Solidarity with local resistance reminds us to avoid consumer/market-centric framing.

So how might MCTD work to address the gap between policy discussions and tangible justice for impacted communities? We discussed the importance of amplifying—and not tokenizing—voices in movement, recognizing many who have been doing this work for years.

There’s a connection to be made to the twin logics of extraction and abstraction (as highlighted in Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI). The relationship between technology and the environment is easily abstracted to technocratic language or boiled down to carbon footprint. This abstraction eschews an explicitly anti-accumulation, structural analysis, and in turn makes it easier for tech companies to position themselves as “green” solutioneers.

We should be in solidarity with real-time resistance and reject framing issues in ways that suggest:

1) the only relevant harms are consumer harms

2) the only relevant solutions are market solutions

3) everything is consumable and replaceable.

As far as tactics for socio-environmental justice go, planting a tree for every square mile of land destroyed leaves a lot to be desired. And as Varon and Nobrega remind us in this article, we should be thinking about the human, social, and environmental costs of environmental destruction as linked.

We also talked about the relationship between environmental destruction and the destruction of the commons: while there were some reservations around the concept of the commons, folks discussed the emancipatory potential of bienes comunes in challenging companies’ privatization and ownership of (often unceded) land. 

We need to look beyond “effectiveness” and remember structures of power.

How do we avoid the “racket” of sustainable development and green tech?

At one level, we need to push back on the claim that Big Tech can effectively parachute in and solve problems of environmental injustice. But whether or not a tech company’s proposed solutions do what they promise, we should remember that the consolidation of power to these companies is the broader context in which this is taking place. 

Drawing from insights around online advertising ecosystems, we discussed how a lack of transparency can make it difficult to hold power to account, especially in terms of regulation. Nevertheless, we emphasized that whether or not a company’s tech solution works is incidental to the power the company has: rather, it’s about how Big Tech companies have consolidated restructured capacity and centered themselves infrastructurally.

Convenience is costly. We need to be asking why, and for whom.

When we think about convenience, it’s worth remembering to question what is convenient for companies, for workers, and for frontline communities—we should think beyond convenience as ascribed only to the individual consumer. Analyses that treat people as totally separate individuals forego possibilities for power through collective action. 

Have a different perspective to add? There’s still time to submit your provocation to our Technology & the Environment Workshop before the May 15 deadline!

Read our call for provocations (no set format; we just want bold questions)here

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