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Threat of surveillance capitalism


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As the data economy becomes increasingly prominent, there are troubling signs that it would create power imbalances within society, writes Ronald Benjamin.

There is a need to educate our young and old on their rights and responsibilities in this digital age.

The country is going through various forms of articulation on going digital. There has been a consistent assertion among experts on how high-speed broadband could enhance the digital economic system.

There is a plan for aggressive 5G investment to prepare Malaysia for the digital economy. This was according to the central bank governor, Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus, who spoke to a CNBC media outlet on 20 October.

While we move forward to enhance our productivity by going digital, which is the right direction, there is a lack of balanced insights and even debate in the mainstream media on the shortfalls and the threat of the digital economy to human rights and equity in the context of who controls this vast form of intelligence and the long-term effects on the privacy and wellbeing of Malaysians.

Surveillance capitalism, as it is called, unilaterally claims human experiences as free raw materials for translation into behavioural data.

Although some of these data are applied to product and service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, which is fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as machine intelligence, fabricated into prediction products and traded in a new kind of market place for behavioural predictions.

Surveillance capitalist have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, since many companies are eager to lay bets on our future behaviour. Our voices, personalities and emotions become the behavioural surplus (Shoshana Zuboff).

It seems the whole digital project initiated by Pakatan Harapan is moving in the direction of raw capitalism without rigorous debate in Parliament and state assemblies on the effects of going digital on national security and the type of regularity framework that should be put in place.

The digital economy is powered by a new type of fuel called data. As the data economy becomes increasingly prominent, there are troubling signs that it would create power imbalances within society.

There is already a dimension of domination and lack of accountability among tech giants that provide this service, since there is critical information that tech giants provide that meet the needs and wants of individuals based on their own time and convenience.

The price is to surrender one’s behavioural data to these companies as reciprocal gratitude for required information.

According to social scientist Zuboff, who has written a bestselling book on the age of surveillance capitalism, ubiquitous terms of service agreement, which experts call contracts of adhesion, impose take it or leave it conditions on users that stick to them whether they like it or not.

Online contracts, such as terms of service or terms of user agreements, are also referred as to click-wrap because a great deal of research shows most people get wrapped in these oppressive contracts terms by simply clicking on the box that says “I agree”, even without reading the agreement. This document is excessively long and complex in part to discourage users from actually reading the terms. There is lack of meaning full consent.

Quite some time back I had a conversation with a friend who told me how Google trails his movements since he agreed to its terms and conditions without reading its contents thoroughly. This started from his usage of Google Maps. How many Malaysians especially the young read and understand the terms and conditions of services from tech giants such as Google and Facebook?

Therefore, it is vital for Malaysian community leaders, unions and politicians to come together and discuss and debate the very foundational aspect of the digital economy, who controls it, its strengths and its threats that affect the democratic rights of consumers to be informed on the terms and conditions they are getting into.

There is a need to educate our young and old on their rights and responsibilities in this digital age. The threat of surveillance capitalism is existential and needs to be addressed urgently.

Source: themalaysianinsight.com

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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