How to effectively merge free software advocacy with data privacy activism

I have been prodded to read Shoshana Zuboff Surveillance Capitalism and now I tell you to do the same. Her arguments are a perfect complement to Stallman’s GNU Manifesto (1983) and Moglen’s dotCommunist Manifesto (2003). Free software has a good chance to be at the center of the debate around Facebook’s power over democratic societies.

Zuboff’s argument is that the Google and later, Facebook, Amazon, etc feed on our personal data to predict and change our behaviors. In today’s editorial on The Guardian, she writes:

Surveillance capitalism is not the same as digital technology. It is an economic logic that has hijacked the digital for its own purposes. The logic of surveillance capitalism begins with unilaterally claiming private human experience as free raw material for production and sales.

The software behind the tech giant’s walls, whose same existence would not be possible without open source software, has enabled the surveillance capitalists to create systems that can

[…] tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees.

Despite all the efforts to build software that can be “owned” by anybody, subverting copyright, 35+ years of shared innovation:

The big picture reveals extreme concentrations of knowledge and power. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, but we know little about them.

This is a damning view of what winning for the open source movement looks like. If we won, why does it feel more like failing, like John Mark Walker argued in 2016?

Now go (re)read the dotCommunist Manifest and this passage in particular:

The liberation of information from the control of ownership liberates the worker from his imposed role as custodian of the machine. Free information allows the worker to invest her time not in the consumption of bourgeois culture, with its increasingly urgent invitations to sterile consumption, but in the cultivation of her mind and her skills. Increasingly aware of her powers of creation, she ceases to be a passive participant in the systems of production and consumption in which bourgeois society entrapped her.

Moglen talks about the power of the creators of software, music, poems against the big Disneys of the world. But you could read it in a wider sense: the bourgeois is one who shares her pictures and location and list of her contacts and… on Instagram. The dotcom era has made us all creators. What we create is being used against us by software that we don’t control.

And this passage from the GNU Manifesto:

Users will no longer be at the mercy of one programmer or company which owns the sources and is in sole position to make changes.

The manifesto somewhat predicted this shift in power and nevertheless, this happened. We knew the dangers of leaving software in the hands of powerful corporations and out of reach of digital citizens.

Yet, as a movement we agreed to swim with sharks, like Alessandro Rubini used to say talking about IBM’s first investment in Linux. And the sharks bit us. They may have even enabled surveillance capitalists to thrive, preventing to close the web app loophole during GPLv3 drafting.

We can fix this imbalance problem. Zuboff suggests solutions after warning that the current debate is heading in the wrong direction. Privacy laws are aiming at “data ownership” but it’s a red herring:

Even if we achieve “ownership” of the data we have provided to a company like Facebook, we will not achieve “ownership” of the predictions gleaned from it, or the fate of those products in its prediction markets.

Free software has the chance to get back to the center of the conversation about data privacy and democratic access to knowledge. Much like open source was at the center of anti-trust debate in the first decade of 2000s.

Zuboff solutions require legislation and collective actions to educate legislators. The free software movement has experience with those.

We may never get Shoshana Zuboff keynoting at OSCON (obviously) so how about inviting her to speak at FOSDEM? It’d be the start of a great conversation.

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