Opinion: Data capitalism and democracy

Posted: Posted Date – 12:19 AM, Thu – 27th Oct 22

Government must tame surveillance capitalism to preserve democratic order and promote a thriving digital society

By B Sambamurthy

A few decades ago, past data was seen as data depletion to be thrown in a trash can to save expensive electronic storage costs. We have come a long way since then. Due to advances in data science, increasing computing power and falling costs, Gold Dust (powerful user insights) is being discovered from data exhaustion. Amit Patel’s work at Google is credited with leading to this discovery of data gold. Actionable and profitable insights are gleaned from digital footprints. As they say, the rest is history.

Google, Meta, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Apps, IoT and Gadgets etc. have been at the forefront of this digital revolution. Hundreds of thousands of data points, data logs, digital fingerprints of every individual and group are spewed into powerful computational factories to create “predictive” products and sell them to other companies/organizations for for-profit purposes in what is called the human future market. This has both brighter and darker implications.

The good side of Big Data

First the good side of data science. New business and operational models are being innovated through data science and new IT tools. It started well with the noble goal of improving the quality of service and products. Customer experience has taken off with big data analytics aided by ML and AI.

The provision of services in the areas of health, financial services, hospitality, e-commerce, etc. has improved considerably. Customer services have become convenient, smooth, faster, cheaper and somewhat secure. Online and in real time is the mantra. So far, so good.

Predictive maintenance, self-healing systems, intelligent resource management have improved productivity and efficiency. A perfect describe-predict-prescribe value chain is created.

dystopian world

Let us now see the hidden face of their operational and economic models. When we search Google for information, Google also searches us for information about us – our interests, habits, tastes, thoughts, preferences, etc. When we interact with friends and relations on Meta, it extracts information about our likes, dislikes, social networks and political opinions not only about ourselves but also about other members of the group. The same goes for Twitter and other social media platforms.

When we download an app, we give limited or unlimited access to our contacts, message box, call records and their trackers and cookies track us relentlessly. These operating models demonstrate that data mining goes beyond the need to improve service and is the epicenter of the problem and the opportunity. This leads to surveillance capitalism (done without the knowledge of the user).

Surveillance capitalism

Industrial capitalism is the appropriation of land, labor, capital and other resources to produce products/services and sell them for profit. Surveillance capitalism is about taking user/citizen data and converting it into prediction products without the knowledge and informed consent of the user, and selling it for profit. This business model is pursued by Big Tech/fintech. They started selling this data to digital advertisers and it has now expanded to other industries, including political campaigns.

Professor Shoshana Zuboff in her international bestseller on surveillance capitalism shines a light on their hidden (some call it dark) business models. She hates bringing private experiences to the market for sale and demands regulation of this sinister new form of capitalism. Regulators must insist on robust and transparent governance models to manage behavioral surplus – the source of potential harm and abuse.

Anthropological watch

Cambridge Analytica (CA) had taken surveillance to new depths. He extracted data from multiple sources and segmented people according to personality traits by deploying the OCEAN model (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). This model helped them predict what voters might do in an election and then manipulate their feelings to discriminate against or favor a particular party. This model was reportedly used successfully in the 2016 US presidential election. Although the CA was shut down, many countries are deploying this model to manipulate voter sentiment. This, coupled with fake news and misinformation, is known to fracture societies. This is dystopia at its worst.

Moreover, gadgets and applications are voracious data collectors and artificial intelligence (AI) connects them all to create a personal, psychological, social, health and financial profile, both on a personal and collective level. Most of them escape the awareness of users and are beset by the dimension of espionage.

Taming Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance capitalism and data colonialism, if left unchecked, can undermine democracy and social stability, with consequences for economic progress. The task goes beyond the framework of the technologists. We need to mix computer and social and political sciences, especially several branches of anthropology such as social psychology, philosophy, ethics, citizens’ rights, behavioral sciences, linguistics and geography. Technological ethics cannot be different from societal, political and economic ethics.

We need privacy and data protection laws to tame surveillance capitalism without killing innovation. Government (state oversight) and Big Tech should be governed by the same laws, except for national security, while signaling our preference for a market economy.

Information capitalism

“If the service is free, you are the product” is a cliché referring to the alleged free service of social media platforms. It’s not correct. User data is the raw material of these companies which accumulate it as behavioral surplus and create predictive products and sell them on the “human future market”. This is a barter trade. Gillian Tett in ‘Anthro Vision’ argues that barter is the mainstay of the modern tech economy. Economists and antitrust policymakers need to tackle it.


Competition laws based on Bork’s principle, i.e. price fixing and manipulation, will not work in a technology barter economy where prices are not visible. Laws must protect all stakeholders. They must fight the new avatar of monopoly, ie monopsony (a market with a single buyer). India’s soft launch of the protocol-driven ONDC (Open Network for Digital Commerce) is designed to mitigate this risk.

Samaj, Sarkar and Bazaar

India has successfully digitized its billion-scale welfare system. Public good and interoperability underpin India’s public policy model. This policy is driven by technology and not the other way around like in other countries. This has contributed to India’s runaway success with Aadhaar, UPI, CoWIN, DBT, etc., and hopefully ONDC. We need to improve this model for a safe and flourishing digital society. Our private sector has missed the product bus 10X, but it’s never too late for product innovation.

Politicians need to understand that DBT is not a substitute for building social infrastructure in education, health, agriculture, etc. We need laws, regulations and governance models to tame excess behavior and surveillance of all kinds. What’s at stake is not just the confidentiality of a strange transaction or metadata, but personal beliefs, conversations, social, religious and political beliefs and preferences, etc. Purpose limitation, time limitation, consent, etc. proposed legislation must address these issues.

Freedom of expression, open innovation, social and democratic order, national security and consumer/citizen protection should be the guiding principles. Legislation is late but not too late.

(The author is the former director and CEO of IDRBT, which helped set up data science labs in the financial industry, without oversight models. [email protected])

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