It is intolerable that tech companies have absolute power, says academic – 2/24/2021 – World

It is “intolerable” that democracies do not have the tools to stop a leader like Donald Trump from spreading lies to millions of people under the guise of free speech – and that the world must depend on the power of technology companies to prevent proxies. how Trump is fragmenting society and sowing chaos.

This is the opinion of the American researcher Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and former associate professor at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, who has just published in Brazil her book “The Age of Vigilance Capitalism” , by Intrinsic editor.

Zuboff was one of the first – and one of the foremost – intellectuals to examine the effects of major Internet platforms on society.

For her, the world is experiencing an epistemic anti-democratic blow, marked by an unprecedented concentration of knowledge about us and the power that comes from it. Zuboff says the coup unfolds in four stages, and we are in the third.

In the first, surveillance capitalism arises, when companies discover they can take people’s lives to extract behavioral data, which they turn into private property.

In the second, there is a huge increase in epistemic inequality, which is the difference between what we have the capacity to know, and what can be known about us. In the third stage, the current phase, epistemic chaos begins, caused by algorithm-driven amplification and profit, the spread of corrupted information, much of which is produced by coordinated disinformation patterns. The effects are polarization, alternate realities and incitement to violence, as demonstrated by the attack on Capitol Hill on January 6.

In the final stage, epistemic domination is institutionalized, and the computational governance of private surveillance capitalism replaces democratic governance. Below, excerpts from the interview given to Folha by videoconference.


A bill introduced in Australia forces tech companies to pay news media. In response, on February 18, Facebook blocked all journalistic content in the country, although it announced on February 23 that it would restore service in a few days. Is this a sample of the excessive power of the internet platforms you are fighting? The fourth stage of the epistemic coup is epistemic domination, which is the growing willingness of corporations to exercise raw power derived from total control of information systems and infrastructure. Usually they try to disguise this raw power, hide the fact that they can turn this power on and off whenever they want, and no one can stop it. They don’t want to draw attention to it.

But now, openly demonstrating this power, I think there is a reaction to techlash [reação negativa às empresas de tecnologia], a message, a warning. Rupert Murdoch raised the issue by saying “you steal our news, you have to pay for it”. Whether I like Murdoch or not, I agree: these companies extract our personal experiences in an arbitrary fashion, without our knowing or consenting to it, and that’s fundamentally illegal.

The problem is no one wants to say that, they allowed this extraction to continue and democracy suffered. What happened in Australia was a sort of “recovery” [cláusula que permite recuperação ou retenção de valores]. Fifteen years ago, we desperately needed the protection of newspapers.

Fifteen years ago, any democracy should have understood that the idea of ​​disruption [do setor jornalístico] it was like providing a car for thieves to escape. Democracies should have understood that the fourth state [imprensa] it is essential for a democratic society and it is not something that is left in the hands of the market. Especially when there are market asymmetries in which a small group really understands the technological structural revolution and the vast majority does not.

Corporations around the world are finally starting to reflect on just what tech companies have given their hands up and what allowed surveillance capitalism to pile up – not just income, profits, and market capitalization, but also knowledge and the power that derives from this knowledge, over infrastructure.

What kind of recovery strategies do we see? There are tax strategies, for example in the US state of Maryland, that will tax profits made in the state. With so many companies struggling or on the verge of bankruptcy, with so many jobs destroyed and so many lives threatened, tech companies are floating above all else, as they profit from operations that only now we are beginning to consider. as illegitimate and as threats to individuals, societies and, above all, democracy.

Are antitrust measures a strategy to reclaim this illegitimate power? You are skeptical and have already said that measures against monopolies will not solve the epistemic coup … How are we going to control this monster that has been freed, that we have let stand loose and grow in size and power ? Governments are trying various strategies, one of which is to revive old tools. Antitrust measures are obvious tools, there is no doubt that these companies are ruthless capitalists, who do great harm to competition.

Antitrust is good in showing that democracy is back, in action, ready to use the law against these companies. But the danger of antitrust strategy is that while the damage to competition is real, it is not the most serious problem we have today. The greatest damage we suffer comes from the extraction of our personal information, as this is the source of microdirection, which in turn is the source of misinformation, amplification and dissemination.

Disinformation, which leads to social fragmentation, is a huge threat to democracy. We can compare with the 20th century, when antitrust law was created in the United States. At the time, thanks to the Supreme Court, antitrust measures were taken against a huge monopoly, Standard Oil. This sparked political fires, as it made Americans feel that these giant corporations must obey the same laws as the people.

But the actual needs of the people at the time had very little to do with what the ruling against Standard Oil succeeded in doing. People needed labor rights, the ability to organize, collectively bargain wages, strike, they didn’t have decent wages, nor a safe working environment. And people also needed consumer rights, guarantees that drugs wouldn’t kill and canned meat didn’t have rat hair.

These were the real needs of the people, but it took decades for there to be laws to meet them … Now we don’t have much time to waste. If we choose the antitrust strategy, which is less important, we will be spending years in court.

The lady mentions in her book that she was confronted with a fire in her house and, as she had never experienced anything like it, she reacted as she would react to known problems with old tools. In this sense, are we using old tools to deal with an unprecedented problem? And what tools do we need? Yes. In modern societies, people assume that as independent individuals they have a fundamental right, which is an integral part of being – the basic right to be the person who has his own private experience and the right to say when and how this knowledge is used. This right is under siege. If we do not transform this right into a legal and formal prerogative, it will cease to exist.

Privacy has been largely destroyed and we must have legislation to restore it as a natural right. We cannot depend on old tools, such as antitrust measures, we need to develop a new legal framework to remedy the damage we have never faced before. In the same way that people in the 19th century had no laws to manage the absolute power of factory owners, which dictated all working conditions.

Do you think internet platforms have the right to ban former President Donald Trump or other leaders? It is 2021, and we have no laws to prevent someone from staying on the internet to exercise their right to lie, that person’s lies are circulating in the blood of the world, aided by these algorithmic props that amplify them and carry those lies. to everybody. .from corners of the world. We don’t have laws that tell us, “Wait a minute, it’s not free speech, get these lies out of here, get these algorithms and all the logic of profit back, so we can really have freedom of speech”.

Twitter and Facebook are not heroes. They waited to act until one day the Democrats took control of the Senate, and they knew they would be in the party’s sights, while Trump spent the next few years in a bar in Mar a Lago. They waited until the damage was already done. It is not heroic.

And that, going back to the beginning of our conversation, takes the mask off these companies, and shows their raw power. It shows that at the end of the day, they are in control. If they press a button they hang up, but if they decide Trump should go back to business, they press the button and call. This is unacceptable. Should Trump be banned? Yes, but the fact that democracy has no way of dealing with it and depends on the absolute power of tech companies to occasionally do what needs to be done – that’s intolerable.


Shoshana Zuboff, 69
She is Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School and former Associate Professor at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. She joined Harvard faculty in 1981, where she was one of the first women hired as an effective teacher. He earned a doctorate in social psychology from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago.

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