We didn’t lose control – it was stolen

The Web we have is not broken for Google and Facebook. People farmers are reaping the rewards of their violations into our lives to the tune of tens of billions in revenue every year. How can they possibly be our allies?

Google graffiti with surveillance cameras in place of the “o”s
The Web we have works perfectly well for Google.
Photo credit: Jeff Roberts

To mark the World Wide Web’s 28th birthday, its inventor Tim Berners-Lee has written an open letter identifying three major “trends” that he’s become increasingly worried about in the last twelve months:

  1. We’ve lost control of our personal data
  2. It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the Web
  3. Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding

It’s important to note that these are not trends and that they’ve been in the making for far longer than twelve months. They are symptoms that are inextricably linked to the core nature of the Web as it exists within the greater socio-technological system we live under today that we call Surveillance Capitalism.

They are the result of the feedback loop between accrual of information and accrual of capital that has left us with an oligarchy of platform monopolies that filter, manipulate, and exploit our everyday experiences.

We didn’t lose control; it was stolen from us

Google and Facebook are not allies in our fight for an equitable future – they are the enemy.

Tim says we’ve “lost control of our personal data”.

This is not entirely accurate.

We didn’t lose control; it was stolen from us by Silicon Valley.

It is stolen from you every day by people farmers; the Googles and the Facebooks of the world. It is stolen from you by an industry of data brokers, the publishing behavioural advertising industry (“adtech”), and a long tail of Silicon Valley startups hungry for an exit to one of the more established players or looking to compete with them to own a share of you.

Tim touches upon the core problem in his post: “The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data.”1

Yet we are not given any examples. No names are named. No blame is appropriated.

The elephants in the room – Google and Facebook – stand silently in the wings, unmentioned except as allies later on in the letter where they’re portrayed trying to “combat the problem” of misinformation. Is it perhaps foolish to expect anything more when Google is one of the biggest contributors to recent web standards at the W3C and when Google and Facebook both help fund the Web Foundation?

People farmers are not our allies

Let me state it plainly: Google and Facebook are not allies in our fight for an equitable future – they are the enemy.

These platform monopolies are factory farms for human beings; farming us for every gram of insight they can extract.

If, as Tim states, the core challenge for the Web today is combating people farming, and if we know who the people farmers are, shouldn’t we be strongly regulating them to curb their abuses?

The Web, just like Surveillance Capitalism itself, has succeeded spectacularly.

Will the Web Foundation lobby for strong regulation of the collection, retainment, and use of data about people by the likes of Google and Facebook? Will they push for regulation to disallow the privatisation of data about the world by the very same entities to encourage a healthy commons? Will they have the backbone – which we so desperately need today – to place blame where blame is due and demand curbs to the daily abuses of our human rights that are perpetuated by their partners at the W3C and the Web Foundation itself? Or is it foolish to expect such things from an organisation that is so closely intertwined with these very same corporations that they cannot be seen as independent in any meaningful sense of the word?

The Web is not broken, it is lost.

The Web is lost but it is not broken. The distinction is crucial.

The Web, just like Surveillance Capitalism itself, has succeeded spectacularly and is functioning perfectly for corporations. It is, however, lost to us as individuals.

Google, Facebook, and the other multibillion-dollar “unicorns” are all Surveillance Capitalism success stories. Surveillance Capitalism is a system where, like cancer, success is judged by the capability for rapid and infinite growth within a context of finite resources. And, like cancer at its most successful state, the success of Surveillance Capitalism today is also on the brink of destroying its host. And furthermore, again like cancer, not before robbing us of our welfare, agency, and freedom first. The problem is that our success criteria for Surveillance Capitalism neither include nor care for our equity, welfare, agency, or freedom as individuals. We are merely the livestock that are farmed. An endless source of raw materials.

The Web we have is not broken for Google and Facebook. People farmers are reaping the rewards of their violations into our lives to the tune of tens of billions in revenue every year. How can they possibly be our allies?

Tim suggests that “we must work together with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people.”

Is there anything more naïve than to suggest that we can work together with the very same companies that exploit the Web most successfully in an effort to make it harder for them to do so and thereby reduce their profits?2 What possible motive could Google or Facebook have to fix the Web we have when it is not broken for them? None. Not the one.

Tim says “It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want.”

I disagree.

It has taken Silicon Valley – subsidised by venture capital and following the business model of people farming – to build the Web we have.

And now it is up to us – those of us who do not have ties to these companies – those of us who are not in bed with or sponsored by these companies – those of us who understand that Big Data is our Big Tobacco – to lobby for strong regulations to curb the abuses of people farmers and to build a bridge from the Web we have to the web we want; from Surveillance Capitalism to a world of individual sovereignty and a healthy commons.

Further resources


1 The caveat being that even when you do pay for products or services they will most likely still violate the integrity of your cyborg self unless they’re ethically designed to be decentralised and/or zero-knowledge.

2 Before you think I’m having a go at Tim, I’m not. Both times I’ve met and talked to Tim, I’ve found him to be nothing but earnest and passionate and humble and caring and a lovely person. I truly believe that Tim genuinely cares about and wants to address the issues he raises. I truly believe that he wants a web that’s a vehicle for encouraging individual sovereignty and a healthy commons. I don’t believe, however, that it is humanly possible for him, as the inventor of the Web, to untangle himself enough from the Web we have in order to effectively advocate for the web we want. The companies that have made the Web what it is today (a den of surveillance), are the very same companies that make up the W3C and support the Web Foundation. As the leader of both, the conflicts of interest are too numerous to fathom. I do not begrudge Tim his unenviable position whereby he cannot effectively delegitimise Google and Facebook without also delegitimising the organisations he leads in which they feature so prominently.

Furthermore, I truly believe that Tim thought he had designed the Web in line with his philosophy and did not realise that a client/server architecture, when placed in an enzymatic pool of Capitalism, would result in the centres (the servers) scaling vertically and coalescing – eventually giving us the platform monopolies – the Googles and Facebooks – that we have today. Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to review architectural decisions 28 years later and point out the flaws in a system that no one could have predicted would have grown to play such a central role in all our lives. If I had designed the Web back then, in addition to being a child prodigy, I probably would have made exactly the same decisions and probably not nearly as well given I do not possess anything close to Tim’s brain. Tim was scratching his own itch and he did so elegantly by building the simplest thing that could possibly work. That, along with him sharing it openly with the world, and the compatibility of the architecture with Capitalism, were the reasons for the success of the Web. If there’s any lesson to be learned from all this, it is that social and economical protocols are just as important as network protocols and that we must afford them equal thought and prominence in our alternatives.