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GDPR is just the beginning as Europe targets ‘digital sweat factories’

Accuse Accusation Point Finger

The European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli has set his sights on Silicon Valley’s biggest internet players with an agenda to tackle the ‘unbalanced ecosystem’ being created in the digital economy.

The message here is simple; the tech giants are abusing their power and scale over the general population and Buttarelli is going to try and put a stop to it. The upcoming GDPR will have an impact on the way in which data is collected, controlled and monetized, but we get the impression this is only the beginning of the European assault on a technology industry which does not hold privacy in the same regard.

“The digital information ecosystem farms people for their attention, ideas and data in exchange for so called ‘free’ services,” Buttarelli said in a blog post. “Unlike their analogue equivalents, these sweatshops of the connected world extract more than one’s labour, and while clocking into the online factory is effortless it is often impossible to clock off.”

Buttarelli has taken the view that the technology firms are taking advantage of the user. Whether it is only offering privacy to those who can pay for the service, or using over-the-top legal jargon to confuse and justify any activities the firm sees fit, the user is always on the back foot. A prime example is the bombardment of privacy policy emails in the run up to GDPR. Buttarelli has slammed the hostile approach to securing consent, believing it to be a contradiction of the principles of the pro-privacy GDPR.

“If this encounter seems a take-it-or-leave it proposition – with perhaps a hint of menace – then it is a travesty of at least the spirit of the new regulation, which aims to restore a sense of trust and control over what happens to our online lives,” said Buttarelli.

While Buttarelli is possibly exaggerating some of his point for emphasis, we do have a bit of sympathy for his position. The technology giants do take advantage of the masses, while privacy is quickly becoming a bargaining chip.

Companies like Facebook or Amazon are masters at implementing the incremental game. This is a common strategy throughout the technology world, and works incredibly effectively. New ideas and features are drip fed to the community and gradually normalized. These are such minor changes, the user doesn’t usually notice the difference and it just becomes part of the wall paper. Once a small change has been accepted, it is supplemented by another minor alteration, and so on.

The fable describing a frog being boiled alive is very similar. If you drop the frog in boiling water, it will simply jump out, but start with cold water, raising the temperature gradually, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The way in which internet players have gradually increased our openness and acceptance of what should not be considered private information is the same. Compare what Facebook is now to what it was 10 years ago.

The incremental steps forward have taken the machine to a new dimension, asking us for information we would not have been comfortable giving away a decade ago, but now it is amazingly simple. Some might not object to the situation we find ourselves in today, but that it the power of gradual normalization; you have no concept of how far you have travelled. The concept of normality has been distorted to something new, something which is more appetizing to the technology giants.

Another interesting point to consider is the disregard of the technology giants when writing or amending terms and conditions. This for us is a complete abuse of position, as written into the terms and conditions is a clause which states some of these firms don’t have to consult, or even notify, the user when the contract is being changed. We find this, quite frankly, astonishing as surely it contradicts the entire process of gaining consent, making the original signature completely redundant.

GitHub, YouTube, Lastpass, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, Apple, WordPress, WhatsApp and Skype are the guilty parties here.

We would recommend reading the entire blog here, and while you should bear in mind some of these points are exaggerated, expect an assault on the technology industry. Buttarelli and other data protection authorities clearly believe the internet players are acting outside of their remit, abusing the trust and vulnerability of the user. We would expect there to be some new regulations to shake the foundations of the information economy over the next couple of months.

GDPR has altered the landscape, going some way to curb the powers of the internet giants, but this will only be the beginning. Buttarelli is seemingly on a crusade to reign back the influence of Silicon Valley.


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