Selling Data to Amazon

I read the article thinking it would be just another bit of tech news, and yet for some reason my thoughts kept coming back to it. The story of the article is simple: Amazon is willing to pay people $10 to get access to their browsing histories. After giving the basic facts, the article then explores the idea of “buying” and “selling” data and the eventual implications of the seemingly simple offer by Amazon. What I found striking was how little we learned in the end about the details of the offer and how the article moved into a general discussion of digital surveillance as if to compensate; and amidst all this I felt the author struggling with language to express what is happening, with common words such as “buying”, “selling” and “owning” appearing repeatedly in quotation marks.

It made me realise that the article reflected my own struggle when it comes to the digital economy to find words that accurately describe what is happening and at the same time allow us to understand it intuitively and emotionally. For example, writing “Amazon is willing to pay people $10 to get access to their browsing histories.” is my attempt to accurately describe the transaction. Is it successful? Not quite. First, the word “access” suggests a temporary right to something that can be revoked, but the browsing data that Amazon collects will remain with Amazon; there is no revoking of “access”. Second, “browsing data” is an innocent looking term that can hide a lot: We should not think of browsing data as simply a list of websites that we visited. Rather, it also includes when we visited each website, down to the second, its contents, how we navigated the site, how much time we spent there, our physical location when we looked at it.

None of this meaning is captured by the expression “access to our browsing histories”. And even in this form the expression feels sterile, carefully crafted to convey facts, not meaning. I would much rather say, “Amazon is paying $10 for our data.” This leaves open the question, “What data?”, but at least the question is out in the open, rather than hidden under “browsing history”, a term that promises transparency without delivering it. And we have the personal pronoun, indicating that we are giving away something that belongs to us. This too is inaccurate. There is no data before the transaction. Only after we install the Amazon Assistant and allow it look over our shoulder while we browse, is the data created. Before Amazon there is only our browsing, our behaviour, data exists only after we engage with Amazon. Furthermore, we never see the data that we are giving away. In most cases we don’t even know the extent of it. Is our location being stored? Probably. The accelerometer reading from our phone? Maybe. Finally, throughout the transaction the data is never “ours”. The behaviour is ours, but the data is not. Whether or not we find it morally right, this is the legal position. In Europe, under GDPR, the user has some rights regarding the use and accuracy of part of all data, but ownership remains with the company.

Maybe a better phrasing would be, “Amazon is paying $10 to surveil us browsing the internet.” Now we capture the all-encompassing nature of information capture: not just what we do, but the process of doing is being observed. Still it is not perfect, because the permanent record of our behaviour, created by the surveillance, is hidden in the shadows. Not denied but also not explicitly mentioned.

Why the obsession with language? How we use language influences how we think. The term “sharing economy” conjures images of someone renting out the spare bedroom to visiting tourists, but in fact 55% of all Airbnb listings in London are for whole apartments and 46% are by hosts with multiple listings on the site. How we use language influences how we think. Shoshana Zuboff uses the term “surveillance economy” to describe the business model of making money by surveilling human behaviour and using the data to sell targeted ads. The similar terms “digital economy” or “internet economy” don’t have the same intrusive, totalitarian connotations.

Despite following the tech news and working in machine learning, I struggle to emotionally comprehend the vastness and pervasiveness of digital surveillance, how much our lives are changing with new technologies and new economic realities. And finding the right language to talk about it, to think about it, will be an essential part to persevere in the struggle. I have to thank Sidney Fussell for writing the original article and helping me think through these questions. 

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