August 13, 2013

JOEL KOTKIN: Silicon Valley: Entrepreneurs Turn Oligarchs. That’s how it usually goes. Excerpt:

For a generation, most Americans, whatever their politics, have largely admired Silicon Valley as an exemplar of enlightened free-market capitalism. Yet, increasingly, the one-time folk heroes are beginning to appear more like a digital version of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” In terms of threats to freedom and privacy, we now may have more to fear from techies in Palo Alto than the infinitely less-competent retro-Reds in North Korea.

Once, we saw the potential unsurpassed human liberation available through information technology. However, Silicon Valley, as shown in the NSA scandal, increasingly has become intimately tied to the surveillance state. Technology has enabled powerful firms – including Verizon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google – to channel everyone’s email and cellphone calls to the national security apparatus.

“It’s as bad as reading your diary,” Joss Wright, a researcher with the Oxford Internet Institute, recently told the Associated Press, adding, “It’s far worse than reading your diary. Because you don’t write everything in your diary.”

Nor does the snooping relate only to national security. If my emails to friends and family arguably constitute a potential threat to national security, that’s one thing. The massive monitoring and largely unapproved tapping into our data for profit is quite another.

Google, which, in the first half of 2012, took in more advertising dollars than all U.S. magazines and newspapers combined, has amassed an impressive list of privacy violations, notes the Huffington Post. Even the innocent-seeming Gmail service is used to collect and sell information; Google’s crew in Palo Alto may know more about the casual user than most of us suspect.

Even Apple, arguably the most iconic Silicon Valley firm, has been hauled in front of courts for alleged privacy violations. For its part, Consumer Reports recently detailed Facebook’s pervasive privacy breaches, including misuse of information as detailed as health conditions, details an insurer could use against you, when someone is going out of town (convenient for burglars), as well as information pertaining to everything from sexual orientation to religious and ethnic affiliation.

Despite ritual denials about such invasions of privacy, the new communications moguls have little reason to stop, and lots of financial reasons to continue.

I expect, however, that there will be blowback. I’m concerned, too, that these people are closely connected to the Democratic Party, and to the Obama Campaign, even as the Holder DOJ shows little interest in policing privacy violations.

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