Q&A: Blogger Cory Doctorow

‘Companies Have Your Back When Having Your Back Is Good for Them’

By Jeff Benson

Last of three parts.

Cory Doctorow’s latest book, “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism,” has much to say about how using antitrust law can lead to better privacy.

But it has less to say about what consumers can do avoid online surveillance. 

In this final installment of a three-part interview, Doctorow told Digital Privacy News that the internet became centralized through mergers, that personal data leaks were unavoidable and that consumers should be battling for stronger penalties for companies that break the law.

Your book appears to discount blockchain and Web 3.0 distributed ledger technologies. Is the decentralization movement flawed? Or is it too much of an uphill battle?

There are a lot of good technological proposals to make things decentralized. I like them. I use them.

So, I’m all for that.

But I think that technology is insufficient. It’s necessary but insufficient to create decentralization.

The internet “became centralized through mergers and acquisitions — and a creation of vertical monopolies.”

We know how to make decentralized tech, because the tech was decentralized before it centralized.

There are lots of reasons to make better decentralized tech, but the reason we don’t have decentralized tech is not because of the state of the art of our existing decentralized tech.

It’s not like making better decentralized tech will decentralize the internet, because that’s not why the internet is centralized.

You look at how the internet became centralized. It became centralized through mergers and acquisitions — and a creation of vertical monopolies, not because there were superior products or because they had networks.

So, most people use centralized sites, and you say most stored data will eventually leak. What’s the solution for customers?

There isn’t a consumer solution. There’s a political solution.

In the same way that, even if you are the world’s most diligent recycler, you will not solve climate change, right? You cannot solve monopoly by making consumer choices.

That’s the entire point of a monopoly, right, is that consumers are deprived of choices in the marketplace? That’s the definition of a monopoly.

“You cannot solve monopoly by making consumer choices.”

This is not a question about choices. It’s a question of pol-economy. And we are in an election year in which there are bipartisan candidates who are framing part of their campaign around competition.

And the fact that we are having congressional hearings on it is remarkable.

Five years ago, people were, like: “Competition is an issue that was settled in 1980. This is not a thing that we’re going to talk about now. What’s next? We’re going to re-litigate the Teapot Dome scandal? Come on.”

But competition is cut to the floor.

It’s not as important as coronavirus, but if you think that we’re going to solve coronavirus without doing something about the vicious anti-competitive nature of our healthcare industry, then I think that you’re going to get very sick.

You write that the digital rights movement has remained stationary while the rest of the world has moved on. Where should people be paying attention? What are the next tech battles we should be focused on?

The tech rights movement has always been about defending users’ rights to self-determination, even though they sometimes might disagree with the choices of users.

But, I guess, it really was about allowing users to call the shots, to be in charge of how their technology worked.

And to the extent that the tech liberation movement was focused on tool sets, on programmers, it was because programmers are what give users that self-determination.

“Having your back is good for (companies) when there is enough democratic control.”

There are a lot of people who have visual disabilities. There’s only a small number of people who can jailbreak e-books so you can use them with text-to-speech, right?

And to the extent that tech liberation or digital rights movements have fought for companies’ rights, with (the Society of Publishers in Asia) and (the U.S. Protect IP Act), it’s only because they were fighting for the rights of those companies to do the right thing for their users and not for their rights as companies per se.

The sleight of hand is to think that some companies have your back, as a matter of temperament, and others don’t. The reality is companies have your back when having your back is good for them. And having your back is good for them when there is enough democratic control.

But we can make evidence-based policy that makes doing things that don’t harm consumers, that don’t harm users — the most profitable course of action — and where taking actions that harm users is not good for firms.

It results in those first paying real penalties.

Jeff Benson is a Nevada writer.

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