The Information Trade

  • By Alexis Wichowski
  • HarperOne
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by William Rice
  • March 28, 2021

Curbing the power of online giants.

How times change. When I began reading Alexis Wichowski’s critical examination of Big Tech, The Information Trade, corporate abuses like the unrestricted collection and sharing of personal information felt like society’s most intrusive threat. Now that biological peril has displaced abstract concerns like privacy, and the internet has become our principal savior from disease and isolation, those old worries seem quaint.

Yet they’re still worth addressing. The coronavirus will eventually recede, but the problems of data breaches, facial-recognition technology, and unreadable terms of service will remain and likely grow. Wichowski offers a broad overview of a tech-suffused world seemingly beyond our control and proposes ways to retake the reins — or at least share them with the unelected leaders of “net states” like Facebook and Google.

(“Net States,” by the way, would have been the book’s logical title. Wichowski coined the term for a 2017 article in Wired magazine that first advanced the ideas she’s expanded here. And while the phrase and concept “Information Trade” barely exist beyond the book’s title page, jacket, and spine, net states are, by that name, under constant discussion.)

Few of us need new evidence of the pervasive role big information-technology companies play in our lives. You might have found this review through Google, may well be reading it on a device made by Amazon or Apple, and, if I’m lucky, you’ll post a link to it on Facebook. The big question is what that heavy influence by a handful of giant corporations means and portends.

Wichowski’s analysis strikes a healthy balance: acknowledging all the wonders of our interconnected electronic world (and this was before they became lifesavers in a pandemic), while warning of their real and potential dangers. She’s not above marveling: Google, she tells us, monitors 100 billion webpages and returns search results in two-tenths of a second.

But she posits that these behemoths with near monopoly power in separate corners of the internet are beginning to take on the jobs, responsibilities, and attitudes of sovereign governments. They’re fighting terrorism, pronouncing formal positions on public issues, even exploring outer space, where they hope to mine asteroids for the rare elements needed to build the devices they run their services on.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, their influence is spreading from our computers and phones to other parts of our built environment in the revolution known as the “Internet of Things.” For those who are afraid cutting-edge televisions, refrigerators, and thermostats are growing a little too intelligent, Wichowski reassures us these so-called “smart” devices are “less smart than just chatty.”

No geniuses, they’re simply in continuous communication with their manufacturers, receiving updates and sending back frequent reports on what you’re watching, how often you raid the fridge, and how cool you keep your house.

Which is, of course, a problem.

You don’t need to be paranoid to worry about the collection and consolidation of vast amounts of your personal information — even seemingly innocuous information — by unaccountable and powerful forces. The nefarious ends this data collection can be put to is demonstrated by a real-world state, China, which has begun compiling “social credit scores” on its citizens.

If you spend too much time playing videogames or spread rumors on social media, your score suffers, which could restrict your ability to travel or block your kid from a desirable school. It’s enough to make Orwell shudder.

Can net states wield the same arbitrary and awesome power over us? Not yet, but Wichowski argues there are other drawbacks to letting private companies occupy too much of the public sphere. Corporations are responsible to their shareholders and only serve those who make them money. Governments are responsible to us and (at least in theory) serve everyone.

That’s why where net states are providing public services — such as advanced traffic-control systems — Wichowski argues that real states (like the cities clogged with traffic) “must be integral partners to ensure that innovation doesn’t leapfrog over boring but necessary considerations such as public safety and fair and universal access.”

The author proposes “citizen-users” draw up a “Declaration of Citizen-User Rights” that would guarantee the right to pay cash for online services rather than barter away control of our personal data — data-sharing-for-services being the predominant business model now; the right (with restrictions) to delete our own inaccurate, embarrassing, or otherwise objectionable data from searchable records; and the right to know how tech companies are using our data.

Wichowski’s presentation is authoritative yet accessible, friendly, and direct. Beyond a couple of apparent math errors, the biggest distraction from the narrative is a tendency to refer readers back to what we’ve been told earlier on the topic under discussion. The book is so dependent on these recall prompts, it seems its elements should have been differently ordered.

This excellent thesis statement, for instance, probably belongs somewhere more prominent than page 72: “[U]nless we demand a more active, contributory role in net states’ use of our data and their investments in what has been, up to now, public infrastructure, we will miss out on the opportunity to shape how they influence our lives: socially, politically and even physically.”

But, well said, nonetheless.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

William Rice is a writer for political and policy advocacy organizations.

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