This week the Netherlands celebrates its annual Media Literacy Week. Throughout the country, activities that deal with working and dealing with media and digital technology, are organized for all kinds of target groups, ranging from children to the elderly. For a long time this was mainly about learning digital skills, but lately it has increasingly been about looking critically at your own role, but certainly also the role of tech companies.
You don’t have to explain to anyone that the internet is increasingly dominated by a limited number of large and mainly American companies, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. It is also no secret these companies, as beautiful as their products and services are, are also increasingly under fire due to abuse of power and violations of privacy and data laws. It is therefore painful that Google was heartly welcomed in the city of Leeuwarden (the city where I currently work and have lived for a number of years), to teach citizens and entrepreneurs about how they can make best use of the internet. Besides that Google also promotes how they can use the internet more safely. Particularly the latter is remarkable.
Recently, critical research by scientists and journalists has revealed the actual business model of a company such as Google: being able to make predictions about the behavior of (groups of) people by often unsolicetedly collecting and processing their personal data. In publications such as that of Harvard professor Shoshanna Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, this way of running a business is explained in great detail. A few weeks ago on Dutch national television, the documentary series VPRO Tegenlicht devoted a full episode to it, subtly titled The Great Data Robbery (De Grote Dataroof).
Zuboff introduced the concept of surveillance capitalism to describe the way Google operated (and in its wake many other internet companies): the unsolicited collection of personal data, or what she calls private experiences, and processing those into highly profitable digital products and services.
The emphasis is on the data that we do not know we share, for example the spelling mistakes we make, our facial expressions or the way in which we formulate. By linking it to other datasets (many hundreds of companies and startups in various sectors, ranging from entertainment to health care, belong to Google’s parent company Alphabet) detailed personal profiles can be created thanks to algorithms and artificial intelligence. Obviously this touches on ethical issues about privacy and online security, especially if you do not know where that data ends up and what it is used for.
Significant for the way Google works is a report in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, in which is reported about a secret collaboration between Google and a large chain of American hospitals. Purpose: unsolicited processing of patient data into… Yes, into what actually?
In the light of this current discussion, it would have adorned the municipality of Leeuwarden when it had looked very critically at the arrival of Google, certainly in the national Media Literacy Week.
Header image: Flickr
This piece is a translation of this original Dutch post: https://jeroendeboer.net/2019/11/14/van-google-leren-over-online-veiligheid/
The Leeuwarder Courant, the largest newspaper in our area, this morning printed this op-ed which is a somewhat scaled down version of the blog post: