Zuboff v. Hwang, or: are targeted ads a bubble?

The Internet runs on ads. Ads pay for the operations of Google and Facebook, and a lot of other stuff, including journalism. You might dislike them, but they’re really important. However, what if they’re just one, huge bubble; a scam waiting to fall apart like the subprime mortgage derivatives back in 2008?

tl;dr: Read Tim Hwang’s Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet, or at least listen to this podcast with him.

Advertising is the prime source of revenue for big tech companies like Google or Facebook. It is also the cornerstone of the “Grand Bargain” — you get access to services and content for free, but we get to collect data about you and use it to personalize the ads you see. Even though everyone’s (correctly) upset about all this data collection and threats to privacy, one must admit: the consumption of the Internet’s perks is still extremely egalitarian. One might be unable to afford a dentist appointment or a daily healthy dinner, but with a smartphone and internet access, everyone can “afford” to use Instagram, Google Maps, Gmail, Whatsapp, YouTube, and everything else. Ads subsidize all this.

Now, there are two narratives about online ads that seldom meet. On the one hand, academics and privacy/digital rights advocates tell the story of how personalized ads influence our minds and behavior, stripping us of autonomy. Because ads are based on data about us and millions of others, their timing/content/context, etc. can be so good as to influence purchasing behavior to a degree threatening human freedom. This, also, provides an incentive to keep collecting all this data.

The most well-known elaboration of this critique has been Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” Zuboff not only described the phenomenon of data-driven marketing; she also provided a conceptual framework to talk about it, and a theory explaining it. In her view (admittedly criticized by some academics), the mechanisms behind online ads are so reliable that corporations now trade in so-called “behavioral futures.” The idea is this: if I’m a marketer, I am so good and sophisticated that I can guarantee that if you spend X on my services, I will increase your sales by Y in the Z period of time. Of course, we don’t know who exactly will buy your product – this is just statical certainty – but we know that someone will. Because of this certainty, you can already now sell this future profit, or use it as collateral in some other transaction. A complex web of financial products surrounds online ads.

Scary isn’t it? Or exciting, if you want to make money.

The second narrative about online ads is somehow contradictory: they suck. How many times has it happened to you that you already bought something, and yet keep receiving the ads for the same/similar product? How many times have you seen an ad and thought “how can they be so dumb?” Lately, a colleague of mine, who’s a law professor at an American law school got an ad suggesting to them a part-time law degree program at the same law school. A Google ad, the best on the market! This is just an anecdote, I know, but I’m sure you have your own.

A tremendous book I just read (well, listened to on Audible) is Tim Hwang’s “Subprime Attention Crisis.” Hwang analyses lots of data available about the efficacy of online ads and makes a case that they’re just one, huge bubble. Many corporations think they are valuable and actually work, but it might soon turn out that they don’t. Once this happens, the whole financial ecosystem funding the operation of the internet will collapse. How could that happen?

One option is that the companies will simply realize they’re overpaying and limit their ad spending with programmatic ads. This could lead to some sort of “Internet recession” but not necessarily a crisis. The other option, however – and here we get back to Zuboff’s claim that “behavioral futures” already serve as collateral – is that at some point we’ll realize that all this promised value, value already reinvested, does not exists. That’s when the bubble bursts.

Now, whether this is actually the case – that behavioral futures are packed together and sold to a degree threatening the stability of the internet ecosystem – or who’s betting on this future value – is beyond my ability to know. But the idea is so intriguing it got me back to blogging after a couple of years of a pause.

All this to say: a “shock” enabling policymakers to radically remake the Internet as we know it might be around the corner. And to follow Naomi Klein’s reading of Milton Friedman: our job is to keep ideas on how a better world could look like alive.

Fixing Social Media: Hit the Cause, not Effects, of Grand Bargain

social mediaThis post builds, in part, on the ideas I got during 1st Istanbul Privacy Symposium: Data Protection and Innovations, especially conversations with R.E. Leenes. Everything that is wrong here is obviously my fault; but want to acknoweldge that many point here were inspired by others. 

In his excellent Fixing Social Media’s Grand Bargain Jack Balkin demonstrates how the “nature” of digital capitalism creates perverse incentives for social media companies to surveil, addict and manipulate their users. He then surveys a range of regulatory options, ranging from treating social media as public actors in some ways, to antitrust and pro-competition law, to finally reiterate his intriguing idea to treat social media companies as “information fiduciaries”.

In this brief post, I would like to build upon Balkin’s idea, and offer an additional perspective on both the problem and the possible solutions. I want to argue that the role for law is not only to mitigate the results of the “nature” of digital capitalism, but to disrupt the very incentives that led to the Grand Bargain. I first look at the conditions that led the current model, and put to question the assumption that this model is necessary. I also question the assumption that the surveillance and manipulation problem can be fixed within this paradigm. Then, I take look at the “information fiduciaries” proposal, and iterate my reservations towards it, also re-characterizing the ways in which GDPR is constructed. It’s an imperfect instrument, but in my opinion, for different reasons than Balkin puts forward. Finally, I throw in a couple of alternative ideas – coming from consumer law mindset – which are one way to go about changing the very incentives that led to the Grand Bargain.

Where are we?

Obviously, there is not one problem with the ways social media companies currently operate, and so there will be not one solution to all of them. Hence, at some point we could do with a map of what exactly are the challenges, what precisely are the regulatory goals, and what regulatory means have  a chance of bringing these goals about. However, it seems to me that an analysis of the causes and possible cures for the “grand bargain” makes for a good start.

The “grand bargain”, according to Balkin, is: online companies (social media, search engines etc.) offer their marvelous products to users without asking for money, but in exchange collect, analyze and act upon user’s personal data. These companies make money out of advertising. The more time users spend using their products, the more ads they will see. The more data companies have about users, the more effective targeted ad campaigns will be. Hence, the incentive to surveil, addict and manipulate.

This bargain is the “nature” of digital capitalism, Balkin tells us. I could not agree more, if by “nature” we mean an explanation of how things are right now. However, I would question the assumption – especially if we are to talk about political economy – that the things must be this way. Two questions are worth addressing: how did we get where we are; and how can we get out?

How did we get here?

Jaron Lanier interestingly argues that the mistake has been made at the very begging of the Internet’s public existence. We allowed two, possibly contradictory, ideas to flourish at the same time. On the one hand, a radical idea that stuff online should be free. That one should not pay for using browsers, visiting websites, sending emails etc. On the other, the liberal idea that innovation is good and tech entrepreneurship should be incentivized. Given the strong commitment to both, advertising was the only solution. And when online companies realized that the by-product data can be useful, and machine learning algorithms can squeeze a lot of knowledge out of it, the arms race in micro-targeted, behavioral advertising started. Two observations here.

First, it is by no means obvious or proven that targeted advertising leads to “more efficient advertising campaigns, which allow greater revenues”. One obviously assumes that – why else would companies, rational economic actors, spend money on it? But more and more research seems to show that these increased revenues are minimal (if existent at all), and companies’ behavior is a herd phenomenon, based on a hype.

Second, we should seriously ponder the question whether an internet and a public sphere in which stuff is free and on the same time users retain privacy and autonomy is possible. Whether it makes sense to strive for a world where one does not pay with money for using email, social media, browsers and search engines; and in which one retains full (or high) privacy and autonomy. The answer, obviously, will not be binary. But we should spend time thinking whether the trade off between free usage of convenient innovative products, and personal privacy and autonomy, is not inevitable.

“Information fiduciaries” cure symptoms, not the cause

Balkin’s “information fiduciaries” idea has two huge advantages and three problems. It’s a good idea, because it’s 1) simple and 2) possible to realize by courts. It seems to me problematic when one thinks about its 1) operationalization in design process; 2) oversight and enforcement; and 3) the fact that it does not change the perverse incentives, but merely puts legal constraints on how to act upon them.

EU’s adventure with enacting the GDPR seems to make two things clear in the American context. It might be impossible to push any complex data processing regulation through the over-lobbied Congress. And even if it was possible, the result will be so complex and watered-down that it won’t do us any good. That is where employing the concept of a “fiduciary” by the common law courts seems very tempting.

Speaking of GDPR, Balkin is clearly skeptical of this “neoliberal” regulation. As imperfect as GDPR might be, I disagree strongly with his characterization that “GDPR relies heavily on securing end-user consent (…) [and] is still based on a contractual model of privacy protection”. This is an American idea, and with regard to the GDPR, is simply not true. GDPR is an administrative regulation per excellenceIt clearly specifies duties of data controllers, including a need to demonstrate a legal basis of processing, a consent being only one of them. In other words, what companies write in their terms of service and privacy polices does not affect their obligations, and does not change what there are or are not allowed to do with personal data. The “individual rights and transparency” part of the Regulation belongs to the oversight and enforcement side, which relies on the mix of public and private engagement. Realizing that public supervisory authorities will never have enough power to combat huge tech by themselves, GDPR equips individuals with information and access rights, which allows for “class action” by NGOs, increasing the chance of spotting infringements. This is not perfect, but it’s not imperfect for the reasons Balkin invokes. And this helps one see where “information fiduciaries” come short of being the cure.

First, this sounds like a great idea, but even with a good-will company, at some point engineers need guidance on how to implement it. Does showing me ads of sleeping pills at 3 a.m.  go against the duties of care, confidentiality and loyalty? Sure, I guess. Do those duties impose an obligation to pull-off addicting games from my platform? That’s where stuff gets tricky. GDPR’s problem is that it’s long and complex. But the problems caused by social media in 2018 are very complex as well.

Second, if we imagine that social media companies do become information fiduciaries, and even if we assume that their duties are specified sufficiently well, the question is: what do we do if they violate their duties? The big difference between doctors, lawyers and nurses sharing my secret, and social media building up a system that manipulates me and addicts me, is that in the second case I might simply not know. Fiduciary model works perfect, if we assume that people will realize when these duties are infringed. But that is a bold assumption.

Finally, Balkin’s proposal does not really change the incentives to make money out of advertising; it just puts constraints on the ways in which social media companies would be legally allowed to do so. It does not disrupt the grand bargain, it civilizes it. And that is where my biggest skepticism lies. Because, as I wrote above, it just might be impossible to sustain innovation and free access to products without some sort of abuse of power stemming from access to data and control over products.

To “Fix” Social Media, Change their Incentives

Here we get back to the question if the “nature” of the digital capitalism is fixed. And, as Larry Lessig made us see already 20 years ago, the answer is no. Instead of taking it as given and thinking of how to civilize it, let us think how to disrupt the very system that gave rise to these business models.

From the perspective of political economy, my conviction is that we should not (only) regulate data processing, or privacy, directly; but regulate the market in a way that will change the incentives. How?

For example, ban the targeted advertising. Or some forms of it. Or some types of content. Especially if we learn that they do not really work.Ban news feeds shaped by an unknown algorithms. Require that users are in control of the choices. If companies are not allowed to use the data they collect and patterns they infer, the incentive to collect and use it dramatically goes down.

The immediate response I fear is “but the First Amendment!”. I fear it, because I know nothing about it, and cannot properly engage in a discussion. But just let me say: even Americans have bans on ads of cigarettes or alcohol; or rules on ads of medications. Even with the First Amendment there are bans on speech directly endangering the national security (don’t want to use the “t” word, since the perfect surveillance will immediately hit me;). So if social media are/might be addictive and cause mental health problems (as it seems they are); and if they created environments where a foreign power can influence American presidential elections; it seems to me that health or national security could be some arguments justifying such an intrusion.

Or let’s do something else. Make it obligatory to offer a track-free, ad-free, paid option.  Facebook’s yearly revenue is $40 billion, and it has 2 billion users. That is 20 bucks per user per year. We pay ten dollars for Netflix and Spotify and Amazon Prime monthly; why not for Facebook or Google? Sure, that is not an option for many people in less wealthy countries; as I said, it’s of course more complex. And yes, Amazon and Netflix also surveil and addict us. So such a move is not sufficient. But it’s easier to make them stop, when they have a secured income from sources other than abusive ads, manipulation or political propaganda.

Those are obviously imperfect ideas. But they are just one possible way to go about the claim that I’m certain off: the role for law is to change the incentives that led to the “grand bargain”, not only to mitigate the bargain’s results.

Facebook’s exercise of public power

facebook-770688_1280In this post I want to argue that Facebook’s banning of pages, profiles and removing posts is an exercise of public power and as such should be subjected to material and procedural standards of public law and human rights.

Ok, I’m not gonna actually argue that much. But I want to defend a weaker claim: it is not obvious that Facebook’s discretion should not be limited by fundamental rights and freedoms, simply because it is a private company. Same applies to other platforms of equal social importance, like Google, YouTube and Twitter. And many other ‘private’ actors.

Context: one international, and one Polish. You probably all remember Facebook’s removal of the photo of the ‘napalm girl’ and the outcry that followed. Critics where accusing Facebook of the ‘abuse of power’ and ‘censorship’, leading the company to change its initial decision. Arguments of critics involved the fact that the photo is ‘iconic’, and that Facebook’s role in news dissemination is enormous (44% of adults in US get their news from there).

In Poland, the case is of a different political colour. In the last days, a group combating hate speech and xenophobia held a mass-scale action of reporting extreme-right wing Facebook pages, what led to the deletion of dozens of them, including pages of a member of parliament, several nation-wide organisations, some with hundreds of thousands of supporters and followers. This also caused an outcry and even made it to the national tv news in the station currently controlled by the government. Arguments invoked by the critics are essentially the same: freedom of speech, censorship, abuse of power etc. The difference is: this time Facebook’s decision got many supporters, who among other arguments claim that Facebook is a private company, acting for profit, and not only is but also should be allowed to do such things.

Now, there is a clear difference between the two cases. In the case of the ‘napalm girl’, Facebook did a ‘bad’ thing. In case of right-wing pages, it does a ‘good’ thing. There are two reasons for that classification to be widely-shared. Firstly, many of the right-wing pages contained content that might be against the law on hate speech and promoting violence. I will deal with this soon. Secondly, there is an emotional reason. Let me dwell on it first.

It just so happens that Facebook currently has a clear liberal and progressive agenda. And that this agenda suits so many commentators, probably including you and me. However, it is not clear that it will always be so. Today Facebook enjoys quite some freedom. Today liberal and progressive sells. But make two thought experiments. Imagine that Facebook would have a right wing agenda, and block extreme-left pages. Or even just liberal pages, or whatever pages that suit your worldview. Would you still be so sure that what they do is perfectly legit? Secondly, imagine that political winds change. Imagine that Trump wins elections. Imagine that suddenly there is a pressure on Facebook to change the course (‘or else we tax you high’, or ‘we grant people property rights in their personal data’, or anything else that would hurt Fb). And that society at large approves. Will we still defend Facebook’s freedom and full discretion? Or will we then say: hey, but common, everyone uses your services, you shape how people think, you have public responsibility and duty?

Emotions aside: In classical legal thinking, which still prevails in many continental legal traditions, including the Polish one, the world was neat and ordered. There were public bodies, allowed to do only what the law says they can do and holding the monopoly on the use of force; and private bodies, allowed to do everything that the law does not forbid them from doing and not allowed to use physical force against each other. 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a rise of constitutionalism, which led to the human-rights-limitation and control of the exercise of public power by public bodies.

Within that picture, Facebook is indeed a private company. It can do everything that the law does not forbid it from doing. It is not under direct obligation to facilitate freedom of speech, a right to associate, fair trial etc. However, notice three things:

  1. Factually, Facebook’s power is enormous. With billions of people using it, billions of people trusting it with providing news, billions of people using it for organisation and communication, it can easily affect the abovementioned rights and freedoms. It might be a private company, but it holds a ‘public’ position in many senses. Why?
  2. Even assuming that Facebook just deletes what it believes is against the law, it:
    1. interpretes the law by itself, without relying on any court;
    2. executes the law by itself, because it has the factual monopoly on the ‘digital force’. In the tangible world, an owner of a debate club might want to kick out a speaker from his property, but would need police to actually take him or her out. In the tangible world, one might find some banners outrageous, but destroying them would still infringe someone else’s property rights. In the digital world, where there are no ‘bodies’, and people do not hold any property in their digital content, this is legally fine, and factually easy, since Facebook unilaterally controls the platform.
  3. However, Facebook does more than just deleting illegal content. It sets its own rules and standards, often stricter than the law. Moreover, it not only deletes stuff, but through the underlying algorithms it chooses what will be displayed to whom and how often. In this sense, if we look at it as a public space, which it in many senses is (remember social media’s role in the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian Majdan?), it is the sole legislator, the court, and the executor of the ‘law’. I does not hold a public power de lege, but it holds a de facto power perfectly imitating the one we have limited when the state is concerned.

Given all this, I think we need a debate on limiting the discretion of socially important internet platforms when it comes to policing the content displayed/allowed there. Obviously, dozens of questions arise: which ones, who would limit them, is market not enough, how would that impact innovation etc. etc? There are other private parties who exercise other ‘public’ powers elsewhere (think of FIFA, multinational corporations etc.). Should we regulate business at large, or sectors, or what? There is much to be thought through. There is already a lot written on this. Much less read on this. Questions are on the table, and I don’t have tweet-long answers.

But I simply cannot accept the claim that it is perfectly fine that Facebook interprets and executes the law, or actually does whatever it wants, because it is a private company. The power it holds is public in nature, just not yet labelled so by our analog laws. And if that does not convince you, remember: it might soon change that ‘our’ agenda sells. Just like with contracts, we need to make them when everything is fine, but will need them when something goes wrong.