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Are we wrong about the faults of the internet?

Online advertising has got itself a very bad name. We are being targeted, we are constantly told, not only because of what we ourselves do online, but also because of what our friends and acquaintances do. Data is being scraped whenever anyone goes online and large assumptions made on the basis of that. These assumptions are then being used to nudge and modify our behaviour.

This broadly, is the argument of the hugely influential theory of surveillance capitalism, as developed by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, and praised by, among others, Barack Obama.

In this week’s episode of Tech Shock, Sam Gilbert, a fintech entrepreneur, Cambridge academic, and author of a new book, Good Data, takes issue with this new consensus. Advertising is not, he says, the root of all the problems we see online.

As a co-founder of the startup Bought By Many, Gilbert himself successfully used Facebook advertising to acquire customers with niche insurance needs – people with diabetes who couldn’t get travel insurance, for instance, or people with children who played rugby who couldn’t get personal injury insurance. 

He argues that Facebook advertising isn’t really different to older forms of demographic targeting of ads. Meanwhile, some of the other assumptions of surveillance capitalism – that our data is being stolen, that it’s ‘the new oil’ – don’t really stand up.

In line with more mainstream critics, Sam Gilbert does accept that the attention economy – all those reasons to keep clicking and checking – is a problem. He differs in that he doesn’t think that’s all about advertising. 

His central argument is that data, when aggregated, has the potential to be a tremendous force for good. He gives the example of data scientists spotting (from Google searches) that loss of a sense of smell and taste was a covid symptom at least a month before public health officials recognised it; and his own data research, which showed that, contrary to what we often hear, lockdown has been largely good for mental health.

The question then becomes how to make sure that "data is a shared resource that everybody can benefit from and everybody can contribute to". 

"Thinking of data as a commons has implications for individuals: maybe the socially responsible thing to do is allow data to be anonymised and aggregated so research can be carried out? It also has implications for private companies like Facebook and Google who would need to do much more than they currently do to make the data they have assembled more openly accessible."

Private companies are unlikely to start giving away their data voluntarily, as he admits, "so it’s an area where I think it’s going to fall to regulators and governments to make demands about more data being made available."

However you come at the faults of the internet, it seems, you end up with a need for regulation. Gilbert sees online harms as less the fault of algorithms – as many people would argue – and more the fault of giving a platform to (say) anti-vaxxers or those who promote hate speech in the first place.

It’s a provocative take, which leads to some useful ideas about how tech companies can prove their value to the world. 

To hear the full discussion, listen to the new episode of Tech Shock:
“Surveillance capitalism - an idea that won't stand up?”

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