The High Cost of Free Services: Problems With Surveillance Capitalism and Possible Alternatives for IT Infrastructure
A large portion of the software side of our information technology infrastructure, including web search, email, social media, transportation information, and much more, is provided “free” to the end users, although the corporations that provide this are often enormously profitable. The business model involves customized advertising and behavior manipulation, powered by intensive gathering and cross-correlation of personal information. Significant other parts of our IT infrastructure use fees-for-service but still involve intensive information gathering and behavior manipulation. There are significant indirect costs of these business models, including loss of privacy, supporting surveillance by both corporations and the state, automated manipulations of behavior, undermining the democratic process, and consumerism with its attendant environmental costs. In a recent book, Shoshana Zuboff terms this “surveillance capitalism.” Our primary focus in this essay is how we could develop new models for providing these services. We describe some intermediate steps toward those models: education, regulation, and resistance. Following that, we discuss a partial solution, involving for-profit corporations that provide these services without tracking personal information. Finally, we describe desired characteristics for more comprehensive solutions, and outline a range of such solutions for different portions of the IT infrastructure that more truly return control to the end users. A common feature of several is the use of highly decentralized storage of information (either on the end user’s own personal devices or on small servers), a modular architecture and interface to allow for customization of what information is to be shared, and a distributed ledger mechanism for authentication.